Odd Coincidence: Random Chance or Preordained?

Death is very often referred to as a good career move – Buddy Holly

Odd: Different to what is usual or expected; strange.

Coincidence: A remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection.

Why did Freud specify ‘odd coincidence’ as opposed to just ‘coincidence’?

Coincidences are events of random chance, simultaneous circumstances that have no deliberate link with each other apart from accidental similarity. Like if you turned up to a social event and your friend was wearing the same outfit, it might not be ideal but it’s certainly not extraordinary. You’re not going to look for any hidden meaning behind your embarrassing wardrobe synchronisation or expect that a dead relative is trying to somehow communicate a message via your matching denim get-up. It’s no biggie, nothing but a fashion faux pas that has no real depth or meaning and warrants no further pondering.

Therefore a regular coincidence is not uncanny enough to deserve a top spot on Freud’s list.

Odd coincidences on the other hand, now we’re talking! They’re suited and booted coincidences that demand our attention, the stuff conspiracy theories are made of. When a coincidence broaches the territory of odd it makes us question the whole idea of it being a coincidence at all – which is what makes it uncanny. It sort of cancels itself out because we begin to wonder that if a set of supposedly random chances are too strangely similar they must be connected in some deliberate, predetermined way – which would, of course, make them non-coincidences.

This is where things step up a notch into the realms of curses, mystical powers, preordained fate and cryptic messages transmitted from the blueprints of life. Because this is what we look for. We want reassurance that what we’re doing has meaning and that all isn’t for nothing.

A chain of odd coincidences rouses something within us – the human curiosity that searches for meaning and context in life.  It’s a primordial longing to seek proof that there’s something else, something much grander working behind the scenes of this strange universe. But since none of it can be proven scientifically, anything beyond sheer luck remains a taboo unknown – albeit an unknown we can’t seem to altogether dismiss.

Travolta

Odd coincidence that John Travolta looks exactly like a man from 1860? Or is he just staying alive through the ages? Sorry, couldn’t resist.

Odd coincidence can offer a psychological sense of spiritual security because it hints we aren’t alone. It suggests there’s a design. A design that’s possible to tap into and steal glimpses of (maybe even alter). But in the same breath it can bring into doubt the very idea we operate in accordance with that wondrous thing called freewill because a design would suggest a designer: a force beyond our control that’s working to bring us to its (not our own) intended destination. In other words, you might have an idea of where you want to go in life, but if puppet master Fate isn’t in agreement then your arse is gonna get hauled back into line and there ain’t nothing you can do about it.

It’s conceivable that Fate (I’m capitalising by way of personification) allows us a little bit of leeway. But let’s be honest, none of us are in complete control of our lives no matter how much we think we are. We can plot and scheme as much as we like, but all it takes is an illness or an accident to thwart those best made plans.

What makes it even worse is that we can’t put a face to Fate.

What could this governing power possibly be? An invisible, genderless force that’s driven by motive? A flesh and blood entity (or entities) that’s bored and merely playing us like The Sims? Perhaps it’s whatever god you believe in, or something we haven’t touched on or imagined yet. Or maybe it really is just odd coincidence and nothing more than that.

Now wouldn’t that be a kick in the teeth?

Cage

Odd coincidence that Nicolas Cage looks like a man from 1870? Or is he merely ageing in biblical terms, with a few hundred years’ worth of action film left in him yet? Yikes!

To put coincidence into a fictional context, writers must tread carefully. There’s nothing readers hate more than some random happenstance that conveniently moves the story along. Sure coincidences happen in real life, but in the literary world a coincidence can be seen as nothing more than a quick-fix cheat to get the protagonist out of a tight scrape. And nothing will kill momentum and believability quicker. In order to make it work, odd coincidence must run as a central theme, an action driven plot rather than a character driven one because it would need to focus on a whole web of linked events and circumstances – like the film Final Destination for instance.

Final Destination is a good example of inescapable destiny – or odd coincidence. We believe Death and Fate are doing the rounds like a couple of bloodthirsty dictators (or as one combined force), picking teenagers off one by one, and yet we never see anything to prove this notion because neither of the vicious duo are actually visible. So what’s to say it isn’t coincidence? With a few screenshots and sound effects to suggest Death blowing in on the wind of Fate, the film cleverly taps into the part of us that wants it to be more than just coincidence. It works well as a horror film because it reminds us of our own mortality and it portrays Death and Fate as brutal antagonists that can’t be reasoned or bartered with, and nor do they discriminate when it comes to age.

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It’s fair to say that the Fate/Death tag team combination would be a scarier adversary than Michael Myers coming at you with a fist full of kitchen knife. At least you stand a chance of outsmarting (or outrunning) a mask-wearing, homicidal nutjob and he has vital organs and jugular veins that you can hack the shit out of – providing he doesn’t get to yours first.

The subsequent Final Destination films are pretty pointless, however. By now we already know that any amount of teenagers trying to fight the inescapable is like putting Mr Bean into a ‘90s wrestling ring with Legion of Doom. It’s painful to watch because we already know the outcome. We know that by the time the end credits are rolling the entire cast will be dead. There’s nothing to invest ourselves in because we got it the first time round – a group of doomed teens escape a plane crash/car crash/*insert other random incident* blah blah blah and then Death comes charging for them a second time round on the back of dark horse Fate – sometimes a third time if those pesky kids are wily enough. The films became nothing more than titillated gorefests to show off how many gruesome ways the scriptwriters could think of for people to die. It’s been done to death now, quite literally.

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There are lots of examples of interesting curse conspiracies throughout history that lend a hand to help glorify odd coincidences: Tutankhamen’s tomb, James Dean’s Little Bastard, The 27 Club, Ötzi the Iceman. The list goes on and on, but there’s one story in particular that bears similar vibes to Final Destination.

On 3rd of February 1959 Buddy Holly (22), the Big Bopper (28) and Ritchie Valens (17) were killed in a plane crash going between venues during the Winter Dance Party Tour. Over a year prior to the incident, the 3rd February had been predicted as the date of Holly’s death by British record producer Joe Meek (who was partial to the odd Ouija board session and tarot card reading). Along with this occultist message there were also dreamed premonitions, sleep-deprived hallucinations and off-hand casual comments amongst the people directly involved that turned out to be chillingly accurate, and it’s all of these links that make it hard to not wonder if the destinies of these men were inevitable.

Valens, like a typical Final Destination teenager, dodged death just two years earlier. He was out of school attending his grandfather’s funeral when a plane crashed into the school grounds, killing his best friend. Valens wasn’t originally intended to be a passenger on Holly’s doomed chartered flight, but Fate, it would seem, allowed him to win a heads-up coin toss to secure himself a seat.

Holly’s good friend Eddie Cochran was also invited to attend the Winter Dance Party Tour, but he didn’t end up going. After hearing about the plane crash, Cochran was convinced he’d somehow cheated death and, like the original teen in Final Destination, became morbidly obsessed with the idea that it would catch up with him. And it did. A year later he was killed in a car accident on his way to Heathrow airport. He was one of five people in the car, the only fatality.

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There are more deaths and odd coincidences linked to the supposed Buddy Holly curse, too many to mention here. But could there really have been mystical forces at work that managed to freeze-frame these young stars at the height of their glory? Or was it all just a series of unlucky tragedies with no predestined mortal flight path to speak of?

Odd coincidence is a mixed bag. It gives us hope but it also makes us feel ill at ease to think that we might be so mouldable and easy to manoeuvre on life’s chessboard. It makes us look to the deepest parts of our inner selves and to the furthest reaches of the universe for answers. Could it be that we’re a world of control freaks that ironically have no control? Out on a joyride only to discover that the car we’re driving is like Michael Knight’s Kit and we weren’t ever truly in control of the steering wheel.

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Odd coincidence that Keanu Reeves looks like 19th century artist Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel? Or did Boutet de Monvel paint a real-life Dorian Gray style portrait of himself before eventually changing his name to become a movie star? It would certainly explain Reeves’ inability to age.

This particular example of uncanny by Freud strikes a chord with me because I’m always searching for answers and meaning. I’m guilty of looking for the mystique in any spate of strangely linked events. And I know, I know, I must be careful not to make something out of nothing because the subconscious mind can be a sneaky little bastard, a subliminal minefield that provides seeming answers to questions we didn’t even know we’d asked.

So yeah, odd coincidence is intuition throwing up cryptic messages in your dreams. It’s the bad luck you just can’t shake off. It’s the clairvoyant telling you that Uncle John likes your new hairstyle and that the ring you lost is behind the couch. It’s the Ouroboros of time travel. It’s the folklore of a curse and the spell of black magic. It’s switching on the radio when you’re about to embark on a long car journey only for Eddie Cochran to tell you there are three steps to heaven. It’s Buddy Holly telling you over the sound system in the departure lounge’s W H Smith that it doesn’t matter anymore. But what are you going to do, abandon your trip? Of course not, that would be silly. There’s no fighting fate after all.

Or is there?

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