Netflix’s Alias Grace, a 6-part miniseries adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name, is filled to the brim with historical accuracies. While Atwood took some liberties with the story of Grace Marks for the screen — fictionalizing some of the narrative and adding a character or two along the way — there’s a lot to be said for some of the superstitious practices explored in Alias Grace.
Alias Grace, while historical fiction, tells the story of the real-life conviction of Grace Marks and James McDermott for the murder of their employer Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper and mistress Nancy Montgomery. McDermott was hung for his crimes, and Marks, initially sentenced to death, was sent to a mental institution and, later, imprisoned. The truth about what happened — whether or not Marks even did it, for one — is murky, but many of the details in the miniseries are spot-on.
Here are three real-life myths, practices, and superstitions in Alias Grace that have a solid footing in reality.
3. Apple Peels Foretelling Your Future Betrothed
In Episode 2 of Alias Grace, Mary Whitney introduces Marks to a fun little game involving apple peels. She says that if you can peel an apple in a single, spiraling strip and then toss it over your left shoulder, it’ll spell out the first initial of the man you’ll marry.
When Marks does this, Mary Whitney is convinced the looping curls of the apple peel spell out a “J,” and says that the J might mean the “handsome” Jeremiah Pontelli, who just so happens to be visiting the next day. Of course, later on in the miniseries, Jeremiah offers to take Grace away from her predicament, though he says he wouldn’t consider marrying her, much to Marks’s dismay.
It’s not James McDermott, her possible lover and co-murderer, that fulfilled the prophecy of Marks marrying a man with a J-name. It’s Jamie Walsh that gets the apple-inspired job done.
While this may seem like a fabrication for entertainment’s sake, there’s some evidence that this apple peel trick is historically accurate; apples, Halloween, and romance used to be strangely intertwined. “One old custom called for cutting a long strip of apple skin and tossing it over one’s shoulder,” The New York Times reported. “The landed peel was said to resemble the first initial of a suitor.”
The origins of this practice are mostly unknown, though they seem to be linked to European witchcraft. In fact, simply Googling the practice will result in several “love spells” for you to peruse through.
2. Palm Reading
In the same episode, Part 2, Marks meets her aforementioned suitor, Jeremiah Pontelli. He brings some trinkets for Marks, Whitney, and the other housemaids to buy and does passable coin tricks.
At one point, he catches her hand and begins to read her future from the lines of her palm.
“There are sharp rocks ahead,” Pontelli tells her, seeming to go into a sort of trance. “A disaster. You will cross water three times. You will have much trouble, but all will be fine in the end. You are one of us.”
Now, Pontelli isn’t presented as the most trustworthy of people throughout the miniseries; he’s a hustler and con artist who takes advantage of people — especially pretty young women. As previously noted, he wants to take Grace away from her lot in life at one point but refuses to marry her. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t done some legitimate research to read people’s future.
Palmistry’s origins are unknown and the practice and interpretations vary across cultures, but the main idea behind it is that by channeling some sort of psychic understanding a person, one can interpret another’s future by reading the lines on their palms. Many academics consider the practice a pseudoscience, especially since there’s no empirical evidence that supports the accuracy or science of palmistry. This results in the practice verge more toward the spiritual — included in the same breath as tarot cards and crystal balls — than the scientific.
Pontelli was right about Marks’s tragic life, though, if that’s worth anything to you.
1. Opening a Window for a Soul After Death
Marks was first introduced to the idea that you have to open a window to let someone’s soul out after death in Part 1 when her mother died at sea. Alias Grace made certain to reintroduce this practice throughout the rest of the show, with Marks insisting that Mary Whitney’s soul needed to be released from the room after her death. Some posit that because Mary’s soul wasn’t released, it actually entered Marks’s body, resulting in a sort of possession that drove Marks to commit murder.
Releasing a soul from a room after death, though, was very much a real practice in European death rites, especially in Poland and other northern countries. If the soul wasn’t released from man-made structures such as houses, then it wouldn’t be able to find peace. Similarly, people would cover mirrors with blankets so the soul wouldn’t get trapped in them. In Ireland, where Marks was from, the window was to be left open for about two hours and then closed so the spirit wouldn’t return. The path to the window also had to be clear — anyone who got in the spirit’s way was said to be cursed with bad luck.
Grace Marks was certainly cursed with bad luck for the rest of her life, so maybe there’s something to be said for Mary Whitney’s soul causing all that trouble later on. Or maybe it was just shit luck.
Alias Grace is now available to stream on Netflix.