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Seven Curses That Seem To Be Doing Their Jobs (plus that Billy Goat one)

Looks like the Curse of the Billy Goat has struck again, and with the Cubs' loss last weekend, it will be at least one more year until the curse is lifted. 2008 will mark the 100th anniversary of the Cubs' last World Series win, so a Series win next year would be pretty poetic anyway.

The story goes like this: Greek immigrant William "Billy Goat" Sianis, who owned the nearby Billy Goat Tavern, bought two tickets to game four of the 1945 World Series against Detroit. The second ticket was for his pet billy goat, Murphy. They made it into the game for a little while, but were thrown out after owner P.K. Wrigley complained about the goat's smell. In retaliation, Sianis cursed the Cubs and said they would never win a pennant or a World Series again. Looks like there might be something to that curse.

If you're not too superstitious, read on for seven more curses that seem to be doing their jobs. By the end of this post, you won't want to endorse soup, knit any presents or turn 27.

1. The Curse of William Penn

WilliamPenn.jpgWilliam Penn is not a man to be crossed. His wrath isn't confined to one sport "“ no, he has cursed all four professional sports teams in Philadelphia. A statue of Penn adorns the top of City Hall in Philly, and legend has it that an agreement was made that no building in town would ever stand taller than the statue. That was all fine and dandy until 1987, when One Liberty Place was constructed three blocks away from City Hall, dwarfing William Penn by nearly 400 feet. Ever since that date, not one of the professional teams in Philly has won any of their respective championships. There may be hope, though "“ in June 2007, a new tallest-building-in-Philly record was set with the Comcast Center, which stands 58 stories. When the final beam was raised, the iron workers attached a William Penn figurine to the top of it, officially making him the tallest thing in town again. We'll see if it appeases Mr. Penn. It hasn't appeared to yet... along with the Cubs, the Phillies lost their hopes at a 2007 World Series win last weekend.

2. Sports Illustrated, Campbell's Soup and the Madden NFL video game series

Curses.jpg

All three seem to have one thing in common: whenever NFL players appear on their covers (on the can, in the case of the soup), he will either be injured soon afterward or be cursed with an exceptionally poor performance. I won't cite all of the instances that this has held true, because it is pretty overwhelming. SI has a whole site dedicated to their jinx. Donovan McNabb, Shaun Alexander, Daunte Culpepper, Michael Vick, Marshall Faulk and Ray Lewis were all injured after appearing on the Madden cover. The Campbell's Soup curse applies to Terrell Davis, Kurt Warner, and yes, Donovan McNabb. Again. As the quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles (see 'The Curse of William Penn'), he may very well be the most cursed player in sports history.

3. The Sweater Curse

CosbySweater.jpgNot all curses are sports-related. Any knitter worth his or her salt will tell you about the Sweater Curse. Legend has it that after spending much time, effort and money to create a sweater for your significant other, the relationship will fail soon after giving them the garment. I am a knitter and have yet to gift anyone a sweater...although I'll admit this is more a matter of skill than superstition. (Note: This is the best picture we found in a search for "cosby sweater." He was a pitchman for Texas Instruments in the 1980s. OK, back to the list.)

4. The Curse of Tippecanoe

tecumseh.jpgBroken but still worth mentioning, The Curse of Tippecanoe was placed in 1811, when William Henry Harrison defeated Tecumseh (at right) and his brother Tenskwatawa in battle. They cursed Harrison "“ and all future Presidents. For the next 120 years, every president who was elected on a 20-year interval would die before his term officially ended. Harrison was elected in 1840 and died of pnumonia the next year. Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley, respectively elected in 1860, 1880 and 1900, were all assassinated. Warren G. Harding, elected in 1920, suffered a stroke before his term was up. Franklin Roosevelt, re-elected in 1940, had a fatal cerebral hemorrhage. Granted, this was during his fourth term, which would not be allowed by today's laws. John F. Kennedy, elected in 1960, was, of course, assassinated. It was Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, who finally broke the curse. He narrowly escaped being assassinated, however, so it wasn't for a lack of effort on Tecumseh's part.

5. The Omen

TheOmen.jpgIt wouldn't be a post written by me if I didn't work horror movies in somewhere. I have a legitimate reason, though: both The Omen and Poltergeist are plagued by curses.

The Omen author and scriptwriter David Seltzer's plane to the filming location in the U.K. was struck by lightning, and so was the movie's star Gregory Peck's. They were on two separate planes. Poor Gregory Peck kept just barely escaping aviation disaster "“ in another incident, he canceled a reservation he had on a flight. The flight he canceled crashed and killed everyone on board.

The hotel where director Richard Donner was staying was bombed. And on the very first day of shooting, the main members of the crew got in a head-on collision. Even those barely associated with the movie couldn't escape: a warden at the safari park used for a scene in the movie was killed by a lion less than 24 hours after the scene was shot.

Finally, the incident that I find the creepiest is that special effects artist John Richardson, who created the famous beheading scene, was injured on the set of a movie a year later. His girlfriend was beheaded in the same accident.

6. Poltergeist

poltergeist.jpgThe actresses who played sisters in the original movie both died at terribly young ages: Dominique Dunne, who played the older sister, was murdered by her boyfriend in 1982. Heather O'Rourke, who played Carol Anne, died in 1988 of septic shock.

Why the curse? Supposedly, real human remains were used as props for the movie. The actress who played the mom in the movie, JoBeth Williams, said she was told the skeletons used in the swimming pool scene were the real deal. She also said that when she would get back to her house after filming Poltergeist every day, the pictures on her wall would all be crooked. She would move them back to their rightful positions, only to find them crooked again when she got home the next day.

7. The 27 Club

Forever27.jpgFinally, readers who are 27, beware, lest you join the 27 Club. Only people who die at the age of 27 are allowed to join, and, OK, they also happen to be famous rock stars. The illustrious list includes Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain and Pigpen McKernan (founding member of the Grateful Dead). Although these are the most famous, other musicians who died at the same young age include bluesman Robert Johnson; Dave Alexander, the bassist for Iggy Pop and the Stooges; Peter Ham, the keyboardist/guitarist for Badfinger; and Kristen Pfaff, the bass guitarist for Hole.

I know there are other curses, especially sports-related ones. Let me know what other curses I should be avoiding.

Previously on mental_floss:

Quiz: Discontinued Ben & Jerry's Flavor or Band I Found On MySpace?
Six Cool Plants I Would Find A Way To Kill
12 Classes We Wish Our Schools Had Offered
Strange Gravestones
Five Ballpark Promotions That Went Wrong

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15 Things You Might Not Know About Chewbacca
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images
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Even if you don't know the name Peter Mayhew, you surely know about Chewbacca—the seven-foot tall Wookiee he has played onscreen for over three decades. In honor of Mayhew’s birthday, here are 15 things you might not know about Han Solo's BFF.

1. HE WAS INSPIRED BY GEORGE LUCAS'S DOG.

The character of Chewbacca was inspired by George Lucas’s big, hairy Alaskan malamute, Indiana. According to Lucas, the dog would always sit in the passenger seat of his car like a copilot, and people would confuse the dog for an actual person. And in case you're wondering: yes, that same dog was also the inspiration behind the name of one of Lucas’s other creations, Indiana Jones.

2. HIS NAME IS OF RUSSIAN ORIGIN.

The name “Chewbacca” was derived from the Russian word Sobaka (собака), meaning “dog.” The term “Wookiee” came from voice actor Terry McGovern; when he was doing voiceover tracks for Lucas's directorial debut, THX 1138, McGovern randomly improvised the line, “I think I just ran over a Wookiee” during one of the sessions.

3. HE'S REALLY, REALLY OLD.

In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Chewbacca is 200 years old.

4. PETER MAYHEW'S HEIGHT HELPED HIM LAND THE ROLE.

Peter Mayhew
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Mayhew was chosen to play everyone’s favorite Wookiee primarily because of his tremendous height: He's 7 feet 3 inches tall.

5. HIS SUIT IS MADE FROM A MIX OF ANIMAL HAIRS, AND EVENTUALLY INCLUDED A COOLING SYSTEM.

For the original trilogy (and the infamous holiday special), the Chewbacca costume was made with a combination of real yak and rabbit hair knitted into a base of mohair. A slightly altered original Chewie costume was used in 1999's The Phantom Menace for the Wookiee senator character Yarua, and a new costume used during Episode III included a specially made water-cooling system so that Mayhew could wear the suit for long periods of time and not be overheated.

6. ONE OF STANLEY KUBRICK'S CLOSEST CREATORS DESIGNED THE COSTUME.

Chewbacca's costume
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To create the original costume for Chewbacca, Lucas hired legendary makeup supervisor Stuart Freeborn, who was recruited because of his work on the apes in the “Dawn of Man” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Freeborn had also previously worked with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove to effectively disguise Peter Sellers in each of his three roles in that film.) Freeborn would go on to supervise the creation of Yoda in The Empire Strike Back and Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.

Lucas originally wanted Freeborn’s costume for Chewie to be a combination of a monkey, a dog, and a cat. According to Freeborn, the biggest problem during production with the costume was with Mayhew’s eyes. The actor’s body heat in the mask caused his face to detach from the costume's eyes and made them look separate from the mask.

7. FINDING CHEWBACCA'S VOICE WAS BEN BURTT'S FIRST ASSIGNMENT.

The first sound effect that director George Lucas hired now-legendary sound designer Ben Burtt for on Star Wars was Chewbacca’s voice (this was all the way back during the script stage). During the year of preliminary sound recording, Burtt principally used the vocalization of a black bear named Tarik from Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose, California for Chewbacca. He would eventually synchronize those sounds with further walrus, lion, and badger vocalizations for the complete voice. The name of the language Chewbacca speaks came to be known in the Star Wars universe as “Shyriiwook.”

8. ROGER EBERT WAS NOT A FAN.

Roger Ebert was not a fan of the big guy. In his 1997 review of the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back, Ebert basically called Chewbacca the worst character in the series. “This character was thrown into the first film as window dressing, was never thought through, and as a result has been saddled with one facial expression and one mournful yelp," the famed critic wrote. "Much more could have been done. How can you be a space pilot and not be able to communicate in any meaningful way? Does Han Solo really understand Chewie's monotonous noises? Do they have long chats sometimes? Never mind.”

9. HE WAS ORIGINALLY MUCH MORE SCANTILY CLAD.

In the summary for Lucas’s second draft (dated January 28, 1975, when the film was called “Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode I: The Star Wars”), Chewbacca is described as “an eight-foot tall, savage-looking creature resembling a huge gray bushbaby-monkey with fierce ‘baboon’-like fangs. His large yellow eyes dominate a fur-covered face … [and] over his matted, furry body he wears two chrome bandoliers, a flak jacket painted in a bizarre camouflage pattern, brown cloth shorts, and little else.”

10. HIS DESIGN WAS BASED ON RALPH MCQUARRIE'S CONCEPT ART.

Chewbacca’s character design was based on concept art drawn by Ralph McQuarrie. Lucas had originally given McQuarrie a photo of a lemur for inspiration, and McQuarrie proceeded to draw the character as a female—but Chewbacca was soon changed to a male. McQuarrie based his furry design on an illustration by artist John Schoenherr, which was commissioned for Game of Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin’s short story “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man.” Sharp-eyed Chewbacca fans will recognize that Schoenherr’s drawing even includes what resembles the Wookiee’s signature weapon, the Bowcaster.

11. HE WON A LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD.

Fans were angry for decades that Chewie didn’t receive a medal of valor like Luke and Han did at the end of A New Hope, so MTV gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards. The medal was given to Mayhew—decked out in full costume—by Princess Leia herself, actress Carrie Fisher. His acceptance speech, made entirely in Wookiee grunts, lasted 16 seconds. When asked why Chewbacca didn’t receive a medal at the end of the first film, Lucas explained, “Medals really don’t mean much to Wookiees. They don’t really put too much credence in them. They have different kinds of ceremonies.”

12. HE HAS A FAMILY BACK HOME.

According to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, Chewbacca had a wife named Mallatobuck, a son named Lumpawaroo (a.k.a. “Lumpy”), and a father named Attichitcuk (aka “Itchy”). In the special, Chewie and Han visit the Wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate “Life Day,” a celebration of the Wookiee home planet’s diverse ecosystem. The special featured appearances and musical numbers by Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, and Bea Arthur, and marked the first appearance of Boba Fett. Lucas hated the special so much that he limited its availability following its original airdate on November 17, 1978.

13. MAYHEW'S BIG FEET ARE WHAT KICKSTARTED HIS CAREER.

Mayhew’s path to playing Chewbacca began with a string of lucky breaks—and his big feet. A local London reporter was doing a story on people with big feet and happened to profile Mayhew. A movie producer saw the article and cast him—in an uncredited role—as Minoton the minotaur in the film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. One of the makeup men on Sinbad was also working on the Wookiee costume with Stuart Freeborn for Star Wars and suggested to the producers that they screen test Mayhew. The rest is Wookiee history.

14. MAYHEW KEPT HIS DAY JOB WHILE SHOOTING STAR WARS.

Peter Mayhew
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During the shooting of Star Wars, Mayhew kept working his day job as a deputy head porter in a London hospital. Though he was let go because of his sudden varying shooting schedule at Elstree Studios, he was eventually hired back after production wrapped.

15. DARTH VADER COULD HAVE BEEN CHEWBACCA.

Darth Vader
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David Prowse, the 6’5” actor who ended up portraying Darth Vader—in costume only—originally turned down the role of Chewbacca.  When given the choice between portraying the two characters, Prowse said, “I turned down the role of Chewbacca at once. I know that people remember villains longer than heroes. At the time I didn’t know I’d be wearing a mask, and throughout production I thought Vader’s voice would be mine.”

Additional Sources: Star Wars DVD special features
The Making of Star Wars: The definitive Story Behind the Original Film, J.W. Rinzler

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