A slippery superstition: Investigating the stigma of Friday the 13th

A slippery superstition: Investigating the stigma of Friday the 13th

Why are we so superstitious about Friday the 13th? Robert Hume investigates

A slippery superstition: Investigating the stigma of Friday the 13th

Many people consider Friday the 13th to be one of the unluckiest days of the year. President Donald Trump’s visit to Britain has been described as occurring on an “inauspicious” day.

Researchers have found widespread fear that something dreadful will happen, and psychologists have even put a name to this fear: friggatriskaidekaphobia after Frigga, the Norse goddess of love and fertility whom Friday is named after, and triskaidekaphobia, the fear of thirteen.

While many of us will go about our daily business without giving a toss, others will take extra care — going downstairs, pouring hot coffee, and keep a wary eye out for ladders and mirrors. Having your hair done or cutting your nails is supposed to be risky. And who would dare pass a funeral procession? A lot of us refuse to buy property. Others avoid getting married on Friday the 13th: some wedding venues offer discounts to couples having the nerve to tie the knot that day.

Making a long journey is also a definite no-no. US president Franklin D. Roosevelt famously refused to travel on Friday the 13th. A study by Kayak (2014), found that people are less willing to fly, so airfares may be cheaper. The average price of domestic return flights in Austria dropped by €24, in France by €53, and in Sweden, which seems to have the most nervous fliers, by €89 on Friday the 13th. At its most extreme, there are people who don’t even set foot out of the house. In 1976, Daz Baxter from New York was so afraid of Friday the 13th he decided the safest place to stay was his bed. Unfortunately, later that day the floor of his apartment block collapsed and he was killed.

In the horror movie, Friday the Thirteenth, Jason Voorhees died on that day, and continues to haunt Crystal Lake in which he drowned.

What’s in a number?

Why is the day thought to bring bad luck?

  • Some biblical scholars reckon that it is the day on which Eve bit the apple from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.
  • Jesus Christ was crucified on a Friday. During the Last Supper, he had told the 12 apostles that one of them will betray him; he names that traitor as Judas Iscariot. Some believe that Judas was the unlucky 13th member to be seated at the table.
  • In Norse mythology, the goddess Frigga was branded a witch and banished when tribes converted to Christianity. Every Friday, the goddess is supposed to have sought retribution by assembling the devil and 11 other witches (13 in total) and plotted evil deeds for the coming week.
  • Others claim that it originated on Friday 13th October 1307, when King Philip IV of France ordered the torture and burning alive of hundreds of Knights Templar defending the Holy Land.
  • Alternate numbers

  • In Italy the number 17 is unlucky, so Friday 17th is the date to be feared. Seventeen is XVII in Roman numerals. Shuffle the letters around and you have VIXI. In Latin that means: “I lived”, or “My life is over”, an inscription often found on tombs.
  • In Greece it is Tuesday 13th one has to be wary of. That’s perhaps because Constantinople was looted and destroyed on Tuesday 13th April 1204.
  • The 4th is unlucky in China because “four” in Chinese (sì) is the same as the beginning of the Chinese word for “death” (siwáng).
  • Six disasters that happened on Friday the 13th

    Bombing of Buckingham Palace in broad daylight during the Blitz, Friday 13th, September 1940 when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were in residence. The Queen recalled “the unmistakable whirr-whirr of a German plane” and “the scream of a bomb” which exploded “with a tremendous crash” in the quadrangle. Four workers were injured, one of whom later died. A water main was ruptured, windows blown out and paintings damaged.

    Survivors of Bhola Cyclone, Bangledesh, which hit on Friday 13th November 1970.
    Survivors of Bhola Cyclone, Bangledesh, which hit on Friday 13th November 1970.

    Bhola Cyclone, one of the deadliest storms ever, wreaked havoc in Bangladesh (East Pakistan), on Friday 13th November 1970. A surge, more than 20ft high and topped by huge tidal waves, overwhelmed islands around the Bay of Bengal and carried ocean water many miles inland. Over 300,000 people died. In 2017 the World Meteorological Organisation officially declared it the “world’s all-time deadliest weather event”.

    Flight 571 from Uruguay crashed in the remote Andes on Friday 13th October 1972. Twenty-nine passengers and crew died from impact injuries, or those sustained in a subsequent avalanche; others succumbed to frostbite and starvation. The remaining 16 were not rescued for two months and survived by eating the flesh of their dead fellows, which they had preserved in the snow, and cut into bite-size strips.

    NY Stock Exchange: On Black Friday, October 1987, global markets collapsed
    NY Stock Exchange: On Black Friday, October 1987, global markets collapsed

    On Black Friday, 13th October 1989, markets collapsed around the world and the value of stocks plummeted when news spread that an American airline deal had fallen through. Panic selling swept Wall Street, causing the biggest one-day crash in history. Some people believed the world was about to end. Many years before, in 1907, American businessman Thomas W. Lawson had written a novel, Friday the Thirteenth, in which an unscrupulous broker takes advantage of the superstition to create a panic and bring down Wall Street. 5. The Costa Concordia cruise ship hit rocks and sunk off the coast of Tuscany, hours after it had left port on Friday 13th January 2012. Thirty-three people were killed. The captain, Francesco Schettino, who abandoned ship before his passengers, was sentenced to 16 years for manslaughter.

    When performing a risky and unauthorised night-time manoeuvre — a sail-by salute to the inhabitants of the tiny island of Giglio — he was supposedly distracted by the presence of a woman friend who happened to be with him at the helm.

    Isis terror attacks by gunmen and suicide bombers in Paris, Friday 13th November 2015, hit restaurants and bars; the Bataclan concert hall, where Californian rock group Eagles of Death Metal were playing in front of 1,500 fans; and the Stade de France stadium, where France was hosting Germany in a friendly. The assaults, many of which occurred simultaneously, left 130 dead and hundreds wounded. President Hollande described them as “an act of war”.

    Happy days

    But the day doesn’t always spell doom and gloom. Some jollier things also happened on Friday the 13th:

  • Alfred Hitchcock, one of the most famous film directors of all time, the so-called “Master of Suspense”, was born on Friday 13th August 1899.
  • Explorer and fossil-collector, Roy Chapman Andrews, who had travelled to Asia in search of the “missing link” between humans and apes, discovered instead the first dinosaur egg at Flaming Cliffs in Mongolia on Friday 13th July 1923.
  • On the same day, an iconic sign was erected in the Santa Monica Mountains above LA. First it blinked “Holly”, then

  • “wood” and finally “land”. Constructed to advertise a new housing development, and intended to last only a year or so, a shortened version of the sign is still going strong almost a century later.
  • First nudist colony founded in Britain at Metherell Towers, North Devon, by Ernest Hemingway’s cousin, Edward, and his wife, Catherine, on Friday 13th June 1930.
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