Double, Double, Toil and Trouble – The Story of the Scottish Play Curse

By Trent Cash

Among members of the theatre community, there is a long-standing superstition that uttering the name “Macbeth” within the confines of a theater will curse both you and the entire production that is currently being performed (Sherman, 2015). But fear not, the curse can be reversed by walking out of the theater, spinning around three times, cursing, and spitting (French, 2016). This curse, often referred to as the Scottish Play Curse, originated in early 17th century England, though the exact date is unknown (Royal Shakespeare Company [RSC], 2019). What is known, however, is that the belief came into existence because Shakespeare’s contemporaries in the 17th century, including King John I of England, believed in the existence of witches, and feared that the witches who chant “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble” at the beginning of Macbeth were real witches attempting to curse the show for eternity (RSC, 2019). While genuine adherence to this belief has faded as the witch’s place in popular culture has diminished, many actors across the western hemisphere still refuse to say the name “Macbeth” in theaters – though the purpose of this superstition has transitioned from genuine fear to little more than tradition (RSC, 2019). While the Scottish Play Curse is no longer genuinely believed in the way it once was, many similar superstitions still exist today. As such, understanding the mechanisms behind these kinds of beliefs is important to developing knowledge of where superstitions come from, how they are propagated, and how they can impact the day-to-day behaviors of individuals from all walks of life. Furthermore, the Scottish Play Curse is clearly an extraordinary belief because science tells us that witchcraft is most definitely not real, so a curse of this sort – which, importantly, has no viable mechanism for occurrence – would truly undermine our understanding of many fields of science. Despite its status as an extraordinary belief, the Scottish Play Curse is so ingrained in theatrical culture that resources explaining its history and sharing stories about its manifestations are plentiful, with sources ranging from actors’ experiences and dramaturgical histories to podcasts and YouTube videos.

When it comes down to evidence for the Scottish Play Curse, pretty much every argument in favor of the curse’s existence is anecdotal or coincidental – a trend that has been true since the curse’s inception. The notion of the Scottish Play Curse began around 1606, when the first production of Macbeth was plagued by a series of accidents, including the death of the actor (not actress) playing Lady Macbeth (RSC, 2019). Critics, however, are quick to point out that we don’t even know when Macbeth was first performed, as record-keeping wasn’t exactly stellar back then. In fact, the first record we have of Macbeth being performed comes from the journal of astrologer Simon Forman, who notes that he saw it in 1611 (Sherman, 2015). While the death of the actor playing Lady Macbeth in the original production cannot be confirmed, many confirmed tragedies associated with productions of Macbeth have occurred since, keeping belief in the curse alive.

One of the most-frequently cited examples of the Scottish Play Curse is 1849’s Astor Place Riot, a New York City riot instigated by a competition between two Shakespearean actors, Edwin Forrest and William Macready, who, at the time of the riot that killed between 22 and 31 people, were both performing – you guessed it – Macbeth (Apmann, 2016). Following the Astor Place Riot, the next mainstream example of tragedy associated with Macbeth occurred in 1937 when superstar actor Laurence Olivier was almost crushed by a stage weight while playing the titular character (The Shakespeare Company, 2017). In the same vein as these historical examples of tragedies associated with Macbeth, many accounts of the Scottish Play Curse have crossed into the media as recently as last year (Faires, 2018). With stories that include actor suicides, characters sleep-walking of stage, stage daggers being replaced with real daggers, and so much more, who could resist the allure of the Scottish Play Curse (RSC, 2019)? Well, apparently the skeptics can, because there are plenty of theatre-community folks who are quick to debunk the Scottish Play Curse. While the primary argument made by skeptics is that witchcraft isn’t real, but rather a manmade notion used to explain the unexplainable (Sherman, 2015), other critics explain that the dark themes and dim lighting used in productions of Macbeth simply put the actors on edge and make the production more accident-prone (Olivero, 2018). Furthermore, Dr. Paul Menzer, a professor at Mary Baldwin College, asserts that many of the accidents associated with Macbeth are simply the result of poor technical design, and that because Macbeth is performed so frequently, accidents are bound to happen every once in a while (Witmore, 2016).

In line with the assertions made by Dr. Menzer, I think a host of cognitive distortions are at the root of the Scottish Play Curse. First and foremost, I believe that the curse arose from a misunderstanding of base rates and probabilities. For example, approximately 50 professional productions of Macbeth were put on from 2011-2016, and that doesn’t include the thousands of non-professional productions performed by school, local, and regional theatres (Kopf, 2016). Probabilistically speaking, with that many productions with many performances each, something is bound to go wrong eventually. The true problem, however, is that people only notice the handful of times that something does go wrong because it “proves” the curse, meanwhile they ignore all of the examples of when nothing goes wrong – a phenomenon associated with the confirmation bias (Heshmat, 2015). Beyond the probabilistic factors, I would argue that performers use the curse as an excuse for mistakes. For example, if an actor forgets his lines, it’s a lot easier to blame it on the curse than it is to blame himself – but if he does well, it’s because he’s a great actor. This tendency to blame external failures for bad outcomes, but attribute successes to internal factors, is an example of the self-serving bias (Fournier, 2018). Furthermore, blaming the curse can help reduce the cognitive dissonance an actor feels when he makes a mistake, but knows he’s a good actor. By blaming the curse, he can adjust the cognition from “I made a mistake” to “the curse messed me up,” a belief that is more consonant with his knowledge of his own skill (Mcleod, 2018). Finally, many actors report having adhered to the tradition of the curse simply because it’s better to be safe than sorry (French, 2016), an attitude that is common with superstitions, particularly when the cost of engaging in the curse-preventing behavior is low (Van Zandt, 2019).

Beyond the cognitive distortions associated with the Scottish Play Curse, there are, without a doubt, a variety of social factors at work. First and foremost, I think it’s important to realize that belief in the curse, because it is held by such a specific group of people (theatre people), can serve as a group identifier or status symbol. As with many things in life, this helps the performers to create an in-group vs. out-group scenario in which believing in the curse is an indicator that someone belongs in the in-group. This is a powerful factor because new members may start to believe in the curse (or at least say they do) so that they fit in better with the group because they want to be accepted by their peers and superiors (Whitbourne, 2010). Furthermore, I think it’s important to realize that, particularly at the highest level, the theatre industry is very competitive, and under the high levels of pressure, having an excuse for a bad performance could become even more essential than it is in lower-pressure environments (Mbe, 2016). As such, the curse could easily become a handy crutch for performers who constantly fear losing their careers. Finally, many actors claim that the key to getting into character is to allow the character to permeate all aspects of their life, and since the story of Macbeth is dependent on a belief in witchcraft, developing a belief in the veracity of the Scottish Play Curse could simply be a technique for developing the highest-quality performance (Ohikuare, 2014). As this technique is passed down from actor to actor, it could easily create a social environment that is more-open to extraordinary beliefs than most.

Ultimately, I believe that the Scottish Play Curse, despite the terrible tragedies with which it has been associated, is a rather light-hearted extraordinary belief that, over the course of time, has turned from a genuine fear into little more than an inside joke for actors across the western world. While many of these actors may still have that nagging voice inside their head telling them to avoid saying the name Macbeth, I believe that very few would tell you that they truly believe in the Scottish Play Curse or any other form of witchcraft. That said, many actors are perfectly open to using the curse as a tool to mitigate the impact of a mistake, but instead of depicting it as a genuine curse as they might have in the 17th century, today they use it to turn their mistake into something to laugh at – and having that knowledge of the curse helps them to become more ingrained in their theatre community. All things considered, I don’t think the Scottish Play Curse is much different than any other superstition. Have you ever knocked on wood, thrown salt over your shoulder, or worn a lucky pair of underwear for too many days just to be safe? These behaviors, in my humble opinion, are no different than the way that actors view the Scottish Play Curse – a charming antiquity that can’t hurt, but can most definitely make you feel attached to the people around you because they do it too.


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Faires, R. (2018, November 2). Macbeth’s Myriad of Misfortunes. The Austin Chronicle. Retrieved from

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Along for the Fluo-Ride: Conspiracies Surrounding Fluoridation of the Public Water Supply

By Trent Cash

In 1939, the United States government – along with many other developed nations – began including fluoride in the public water supply in an attempt to promote oral health amongst its citizens (Centers for Disease Control [CDC], 2016). Despite the purported benefits of fluoridation, critics (henceforth referred to as anti-fluoriders) have claimed since the 1950s that the practice is obsolete, dangerous, a violation of individual freedoms, and, in the most extreme cases, a government (or communist) mind-control plot (Ewens, 2016). While beliefs about the negative or null effects of fluoridation have faded since the fall of the Soviet Union, they are now primarily held by individuals who are prone to believing in conspiracy theories – often referred to as “truthers” – but the belief has found a foothold in academic and medical circles, with professionals primarily debating the ethical implications of forced fluoride intake (Ewens, 2016). Additionally, the sentiment is frequently espoused in so-called “Mommy Blogs,” where the primary argument is that fluoride should not be given to children because of its supposed toxicity (Dr. Jill, 2018). Sources discussing the potential implications of fluoride range from large organizations such as the Fluoride Action Network to fringe blog sites, such as “Science Based Life.” Despite these arguments, research has consistently shown that fluoridation has an overwhelmingly positive effect on health, and is even considered one of the top ten greatest public health achievements of the 20th century (CDC, 2016). As such, the fears surrounding fluoridation should be considered an extreme belief, as validation of the belief would not only shake our foundations of scientific understanding, but also bring into question the credibility of democratic governments around the world. Furthermore, if the extreme belief is unfounded, its propagation could set oral health services back nearly a century and diminish the oral health of millions. As such, eradication of the myth is in the public’s best interest.

When you discount the mind control discussion and the “Hitler used fluoride” point (read more here), the fluoride argument really comes down to two major points: is fluoride safe, and is fluoride necessary? In addressing the first point, anti-fluoriders claim that fluoride is a toxin that has a host of negative effects on your health. While nearly every negative outcome under the sun has been suggested, the most-frequently cited ailment is bone cancer (American Cancer Society [ACS], 2015). The bone cancer argument is frequently supported by an unpublished dissertation from a Harvard graduate student finding that young boys (note: N=11) exposed to fluoride between the ages of 5-10 have an increased risk of osteosarcoma from ages 10-19 due to accumulation of fluoride in growth plates (Woffinden, 2005). Similar results were found in male mice, but no human replication of these studies has been published in a reputable journal (ACS, 2015). In contrast to these reports, the American Cancer Society (ACS; 2015) obviously cannot “prove the negative,” but they claim that the weight of the evidence (i.e. thousands of studies from dozens of countries) does not support the carcinogenicity of fluoride, and that the unpublished Harvard dissertation was impacted by flawed research methods. Additionally, the ACS (2015) notes that concerns regarding osteosarcoma are often inflated due to the extreme rarity of the condition, which receives 400 diagnoses per year in the United States.

As to the matter of the necessity of fluoride, anti-fluoriders often argue that fluoride is unnecessary because it is “unnatural” and “not an essential nutrient” (Fluoride Action Network, 2012). Proponents of fluoridation do not claim that fluoride is “necessary,” but they do defend its myriad of benefits. The CDC (2016) claims that drinking fluoride reduces cavities in children by 25% and saves resources within the public health system. In corroborating this claim, the American Dental Association (ADA; 2019) claims that every $1 spent on fluoridation reduces public dental health spending by $38. Furthermore, the ADA (2019) notes that fluoride is in fact naturally present in groundwater and the ocean (i.e. natural), and that the government is simply increasing it to a recommended level.

There are definitely a variety of cognitive distortions at work in the fluoridation debate. First and foremost, I think that anti-fluoriders are influenced by the causal fallacy, meaning that they don’t understand that correlation does not equal causation. I think this is best evidenced by the fact that many of the blogs, such as one cool blog called “Fluoride – Drinking Ourselves to Death,” take evidence from studies showing relationships between fluoride and negative health outcomes and use the relationships as evidence that fluoride causes the negative health outcomes (Bollinger, 2015). Beyond this, I believe the arguments of anti-fluoriders are influenced by a misunderstanding of statistics – namely the need to replicate and ignorance of base rates. In fact, the ACS (2015) directly states that the anti-fluoride studies are rarely replicated, and that concerns regarding osteosarcoma result from the extreme rarity of the disease (i.e. a low base rate) skewing correlational data. Finally, I think the anti-fluoriders are influenced – as we all are – by the confirmation bias, meaning that they are more likely to search for evidence that confirms their beliefs and interpret ambiguous evidence in a way that supports their beliefs. The “Drinking Ourselves to Death” blog is a perfect example of this, as the author ONLY mentions evidence that supports his claim (Bollinger, 2015).

In terms of social context, I think there are a few major factors at work. First and foremost, the whole anti-fluoride movement is underwritten by a notion of freedom from government intervention, a political ideology (Ewens, 2016). Basically, many of the anti-fluoriders think – at minimum – that individuals should be able to choose whether they want fluoride or not, a relatively reasonable request. However, like many ideologies, the anti-fluoriders come together and their beliefs become more extreme, likely as a result of common social psychological phenomena, such as groupthink and group polarization. This deepening of beliefs can lead to some of the more outrageous beliefs (e.g. government mind control) that line up with what I would call radical libertarianism. Aside from the tendency of social networks to create more-extreme beliefs, they also provide benefits to the members in the forms of entertainment value and sense of belonging. To me, this is a particularly important element of continued adherence to the anti-fluoride movement because adherents seem to be primarily middle-income, white, not college educated, and young to middle age – all of which are groups that tend to have a decent amount of free time, some disposable income, and a grave need for social connection. So, even if these people aren’t really that interested in the anti-fluoride movement, being a part of the group makes them feel good, so they will begin to adjust their beliefs to make the group like them more. In my opinion, this is what makes any conspiracy theory particularly enticing to the human psyche.

All things considered, I think the most important thing to realize about the anti-fluoride movement is that, like anything, it comes in many forms. While it’s fun to laugh at the people who think it’s a form of government mind control, there’s an equally large (or larger) number of people who just want to feel that they get to make the choice themselves. This need for decisional control lines up with self-determination research showing that having control over one’s life is a critical aspect of maintaining a healthy self-esteem and overall psychological well-being (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Like believers of any extraordinary belief, anti-fluoriders are simply trying to make sense of the crazy world around them and find their niche in society. While the overwhelming majority of science may not support their beliefs, psychology is perfectly clear on why they would embrace their beliefs: it makes them feel good. While we may not know the exact mechanism for each individual’s extraordinary belief, all of the believers are doing what they feel will make them best off – even if this means distorting facts through a variety of biases (e.g. confirmation bias, omission bias) or crafting fallacy-laden arguments. When it comes down to it, I firmly believe that the anti-fluoriders are incorrect at best and potentially-harmful at worst – but ultimately, I don’t think most of them are any crazier than the rest of us. I mean, haven’t you ever done something that others would call stupid just to fit in, have friends, feel good, or be happy?


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Bollinger, T. (2015, April 22). Fluoride – Drinking Ourselves to Death? Retrieved February 6, 2019, from

Centers for Disease Control. (2016, October 4). Community Water Fluoridation. Retrieved February 6, 2019, from

Dr. Jill. (2018). Why You Should REFUSE Fluoride Treatments for Your Child [Web log post]. Retrieved February 6, 2019, from

Ewens, H. (2016, August 12). A Deep Dive Into the Conspiracy Theory That Governments Are Controlling Us with Fluoride. Vice Magazine. Retrieved February 6, 2019, from

Fluoride Action Network. (2012, August). FLUORIDE IS NOT AN ESSENTIAL NUTRIENT. Retrieved February 6, 2019, from

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.55.1.68

Woffinden, B. (2005, June 12). Fluoride water ’causes cancer’. Retrieved February 6, 2019, from