April 07, 2020
Column

Why some fear Friday the 13th

Not to be nosey, but were you one of those people who woke up yesterday morning and, after noticing the date on the calendar or the top of the newspaper, called in sick to work and spent the rest of the day lying in bed?

Were you one of those people who carefully planned all of the week’s activities so that you didn’t have to fly on an airplane on Friday or even drive your car for fear that something bad might happen if you did?

If so, there’s an official name for your feeling of dread. Psychologists call it “paraskevedekatriaphobia,” the fear of Friday the 13th, and it’s one of the most prevalent superstitions ever passed down through the centuries.

And by the way, you’re not alone in your anxiety. According to Dr. Donald Dossey, a psychotherapist and founder of the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, N.C., as well as a 1990 Gallup poll, as many as 21 million Americans believe Friday the 13th to be so unlucky that it’s best observed by simply shuttering oneself indoors until it passes.

Not being a paraskevedekatriaphobic myself, I hadn’t even noticed it was looming on the calendar – as it does between one and three Fridays in any given year – until I got an e-mail from an online gambling site that actually posts odds on the likelihood that certain unpleasant events would befall us on this day. If you’re a betting man or woman, you might be interested to know that the odds that the world would end on Friday came in at 1,000,000 to 1, while a bird pooping on your head was 100 to 1 and suddenly losing all of your hair was a long shot at 250 to 1.

That people would bet on such things was interesting, of course, but not nearly as much as learning about the murky origins of the day and the irrational fears it has long engendered in so many otherwise mentally healthy people.

According to an article on the National Geographic magazine’s Web site, fear of Friday the 13th is rooted in ancient, separate bad-luck associations between the number 13 and the day of the week itself.

One origin is believed to come from Christian folklore of the Middle Ages involving the stories of Jesus’ Last Supper and the crucifixion. Jesus was crucified on a Friday, and there were 13 guests at the Last Supper. And who do you suppose was the 13th guest at that meal? You guessed it – Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus. Some biblical scholars also believe that Eve tempted Adam with the forbidden fruit on a Friday, and that Cain slew Abel on Friday the 13th.

Other scholars trace the fear of 13 – which goes by the name “triskaidekaphobia” in the superstition trade – to Loki, the mischievous Norse god of evil, who raised hell when he showed up as the uninvited 13th guest at a heavenly banquet at Valhalla. During the feast, Loki arranged for Hoder, the blind god of darkness, to shoot Balder the Beautiful, the god of joy and gladness, with a mistletoe-tipped arrow.

Balder died, the Earth went dark, and the number 13 has been considered ominous and foreboding ever since.

But whatever its origins, the wariness of the number 13 has persisted from the dark ages right up to our supposedly enlightened modern world. According to Dossey, who is also a folklore historian and the author of a book on phobias and superstitions, more than 80 percent of high-rises lack a 13th floor and some cities skip 13th avenue and 13th street. Many hospitals and hotels have no room number 13 either, and some airports omit a 13th gate.

Combine 13 with Friday, folklore’s unluckiest day of the week, and, to the superstitious mind, you’ve got a double whammy of potential misfortune.

It’s estimated that between $800 million and $900 million worth of business is lost each Friday the 13th because so many people refuse to travel, go to work, buy houses and cars or tend to other important matters on that day.

Psychologists recommend that people who suffer from Friday the 13th fears should try to focus on more pleasant thoughts during that day and strive to create their own good luck and bad. There are some colorful remedies from folklore too such as climbing to the top of a mountain and burning all the socks you own that have holes in them or standing on your head and eating a piece of gristle.

Those can wait for another day, however. If you’re one of the afflicted masses, the fact that you’re reading this, and presumably while still in one piece, means you’ve survived another fearsome Friday. And if it’s any consolation, there won’t be another to worry about until next April.

But if you’re planning to do a few home repairs this weekend or clean the leaves from the gutters, perhaps it might be better if you avoid walking under the ladder. No need to push your luck.


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