John Roach for National Geographic News
This Friday some people will be so paralyzed with fear they simply won’t
get out of bed. Others will steadfastly refuse to fly on an airplane,
buy a house, or act on a hot stock tip. It’s Friday the 13th, and
they’re freaked out.
"It’s been estimated that [U.S] $800 or $900 million is lost in business on this day because people will not fly or do business they would normally do," said Donald Dossey, founder of the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina.
Among other services, Dossey’s organization counsels clients on how to overcome fear of Friday the 13th, a phobia that he estimates afflicts 17 to 21 million people in the United States.
Symptoms range from mild anxiety to full-blown panic attacks. The latter may cause people to reshuffle schedules or miss an entire day’s work.
When it comes to bad luck of any kind, Richard Wiseman—a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, England—found that people who consider themselves unlucky are more likely to believe in superstitions associated with bad luck.
"Their beliefs and behavior are likely to be part of a much bigger worldview," he said. "They will believe that luck is a magical force and that it can ruin their lives."
Wiseman found that one quarter of the 2,068 people questioned in a 2003 survey associate the number 13 with bad luck. People with such feelings, he found, are more likely to be anxious on days like Friday the 13th and thus more prone to have accidents. In other words, being afraid of Friday the 13th could be their undoing.
So how did Friday the 13th become such an unlucky day?
Dossey, also a folklore historian and author of Holiday Folklore, Phobias and Fun, said fear of Friday the 13th is rooted in ancient, separate bad-luck associations with the number 13 and the day Friday. The two unlucky entities ultimately combined to make one super unlucky day.
Dossey traces the fear of 13 to a Norse myth about 12 gods having a dinner party at Valhalla, their heaven. In walked the uninvited 13th guest, the mischievous Loki. Once there, 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 and the whole Earth got dark. The whole Earth mourned. It was a bad, unlucky day," said Dossey. From that moment on, the number 13 has been considered ominous and foreboding.
There is also a biblical reference to the unlucky number 13. Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus, was the 13th guest to the Last Supper.
Meanwhile, in ancient Rome, witches reportedly gathered in groups of 12. The 13th was believed to be the devil.
Thomas Fernsler, an associate policy scientist in the Mathematics and Science Education Resource Center at the University of Delaware in Newark, said the number 13 suffers because of its position after 12.
According to Fernsler, numerologists consider 12 a "complete" number. There are 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 gods of Olympus, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 tribes of Israel, and 12 apostles of Jesus.
In exceeding 12 by 1, Fernsler said 13’s association with bad luck "has to do with just being a little beyond completeness. The number becomes restless or squirmy."
This fear of 13 is strong in today’s world. According to Dossey, more than 80 percent of high-rises lack a 13th floor. Many airports skip the 13th gate. Hospitals and hotels regularly have no room number 13.
On streets in Florence, Italy, the house between number 12 and 14 is addressed as 12 and a half. In France socialites known as the quatorziens (fourteeners) once made themselves available as 14th guests to keep a dinner party from an unlucky fate.
Many triskaidekaphobes, as those who fear the unlucky integer are known, point to the ill-fated mission to the moon, Apollo 13.
As for Friday, it is well known among Christians as the day Jesus was crucified. Some biblical scholars believe Eve tempted Adam with the forbidden fruit on Friday. Perhaps most significant is a belief that Abel was slain by Cain on Friday the 13th.
So, what are triskaidekaphobes to do?
Dossey said "practical" cures are as simple as learning to refocus one’s thoughts from negative feelings to positive. His mantra: "What you think about, you begin to feel. What you feel generates what you do. And what you do creates how you will become."
In other words, those stricken with negative thoughts about Friday the 13th need to learn how to focus on pleasant thoughts. Those, in turn, will create pleasant feelings that make one’s fears less overwhelming, according to Dossey.
"They haven’t lost their mind. They’ve lost control of their mind," Dossey said of triskaidekaphobes. "They are focused in the wrong direction. In their mind they have a big, large, looming picture of something horrible that could happen."
Wiseman, the University of Hertfordshire psychologist, offers similar advice to those stricken with the fear of Friday the 13th.
"They need to realize that they have the ability to create much of their own good and bad luck," he said. "And they should concentrate on being lucky by, for example, looking on the bright side of events in their lives, remembering the good things that have happened, and, most of all, be[ing] prepared to take control of their future."
Folklore offers other remedies, however. One recommendation is to climb to the top of a mountain or skyscraper and burn all the socks you own that have holes in them. Another is to stand on your head and eat a piece of gristle.
So if you fear the 13th, take your pick of remedies and let tomorrow bring its luck—good or bad.