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My Take: Why we fear Friday the 13th
May 13th, 2011
10:29 AM ET

My Take: Why we fear Friday the 13th

Editor's Note: Stuart Vyse is professor of psychology at Connecticut College and the author of "Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition," which won the American Psychological Association's William James Book Award.

By Stuart Vyse, Special to CNN

Why do we fear today above all other Fridays? On any other Friday we hear the gleeful exclamation of “TGIF.” The work week is almost over and playtime is about to begin.

But when Friday the 13th arrives, many of us respond quite differently. Travel arrangements are canceled and doctor appointments are rescheduled. Risky endeavors of all kinds are put off in an effort to avoid tempting fate. Modern Homo sapiens are remarkably sophisticated creatures, capable of writing symphonies, solving the Poincare Conjecture, and inventing Nutella, yet we carry around a number of fears that seem to be more characteristic of our ancient past.

Why? And why do we fear Friday the 13th in particular? There are several reasons.

First, it is all but impossible to avoid learning the superstition in the first place. Friday the 13th is perhaps the most prominent of a group of traditional anxiety-heightening superstitions that includes black cats, broken mirrors, stepping on cracks and walking under ladders. This collection of fearsome hobgoblins is an inherent feature of our Western culture and our families and friends indoctrinate all of us.

Most superstitions arise as a method of coping with uncertainty. We fret about the important things in our lives: our health, our children, our paychecks and our sports teams. All these things are dear to us and all can be drastically affected in a positive or negative direction by events utterly beyond our control.

Superstitious rituals and lucky charms give us a comforting sense of control over the unexpected when there is nothing more practical that can be done. In the case of the lucky superstitions, there is some evidence that belief in luck-enhancing powers can bring psychological benefits and improve performance.

But the phobic, unlucky superstitions are more problematic. Once acquired, these superstitions bring their own anxiety. If you believe Friday the 13th is unlucky, on average a couple of times a year you will be forced to consider whether or not to adapt your daily routine to avoid the prospect of harm.

When bad things happen to us, we may prefer having something to blame, such as a traditionally unlucky day. But the price we pay for this illusory explanation is having to confront a recurring fear whenever Friday the 13th rolls around.

For some, the traditional origins of the Friday the 13th superstition probably encourage belief in the day’s dark power. There are many theories about the source of this superstition, but the most lasting and convincing points to the biblical account of the Last Supper, which the Bible describes as a gathering of Jesus and the 12 apostles just before Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday.

It’s also probably best theory for explaining why the number 13 itself is considered unlucky. There's also a common superstition about 13 people at a table being bad luck, which is thought to have the same origin.

Interestingly, the infrequency of Friday the 13th helps to maintain the anxiety it provokes. There is a 13th day in every month of the year, but when the 13th falls on a Tuesday or a Sunday or any day but Friday we take little notice. Same goes for the 50 or more non-13th Fridays each year.

This year, today is the only Friday the 13th.

If we encountered our superstitions at a much higher rate—if black cats were everywhere and mirrors broke on a daily basis—all of the ups and downs of life would occur in their proximity. These superstitions would not be unusual enough to imbue them with any special significance. Unexpected happy or unhappy events could not be easily attributed to the presence of a black cat or a broken mirror.

But because black cats and broken mirrors and Fridays the 13th are quite rare, it's almost impossible not to associate a calamitous event that befalls you when they’re nearbywith the superstition attached to them.

Finally, we should not underestimate the role of the media in keeping this irrational belief alive. As the author of a book on the psychology of superstition, my phone often rings during the week preceding Friday the 13th. Superstitious belief is a quirk of our humanity that carries an enduring fascination, and news outlets are always hungry for an interesting story. As long as these superstitions are kept floating around in our cultural ether, they will persist.

If you have managed to live your life without superstition, congratulations. A life of reason is better for us as individuals and as members of society than one spent in service to ghosts and magical thinking.

But if you are one of those who feel an anxious pang when you realize it is Friday the 13th, your reaction is not at all surprising. There are many forces conspiring to make you anxious, and they are likely to exist as long as we do.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stuart Vyse.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Jesus • Superstition

soundoff (229 Responses)
  1. g

    i think most people go *pee-pee* on Friday the 13th

    May 13, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  2. Frogist

    I did not know the origin of the Friday the 13th superst!tion. So thank you for that! I think the author did miss one point when he mentioned that belief in that myth means we are dooming ourselves to a fearful couple of days each year. But that also means we are freeing up the other non-Friday the 13ths from fear as well. If we assign one day one event to have all the bad luck and evil and fear that inherently means the rest of the days can be spent in relative peace. Maybe that's the real benefit of certain persistent mythologies. Of course one can argue that living with a strong hold on reason could also free you from that fear. A non-superst!tious person would be free all the non-Friday the 13ths as well as the doomed days. Unfortunately, fear isn't always rational. As a person who has lived with anxiety all her life, I wish that were true for me. I could reasonably say nothing bad is going to happen and trust it. Sadly, it doesn't work that way all the time. Sometimes you need something else to be your lightning rod whether it's real or not. I guess that's why I find it harder to condemn all believers. To some extent, I see their point.

    May 13, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  3. Free

    I like the theory that religious taboos are actually just superst.itions. Disaster strikes and a community looks to lay blame and, naturally, they blame outcast and minority behaviors rather than majority ones. Thus, such minority behaviors as being left-handed, an independent woman, or being gay are all seen as being 'unlucky' to everyone else.

    Certainly the current fear being generated in the US that gays bring the wrath of God upon us in the forms of hurricanes and tornadoes (as if there was ever a time when these did not occur, even before Europeans and Christians settled here) is just another of these base superst.itions. Makes about as much sense as blaming everyone who happens to be left-handed, or owns a black cat.

    May 13, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • Frogist

      @Free: That is a most excellent point about condemning gays and the wrath of god. I hadn't really thought of it that way. It sort of puts that whole movement in perspective, doesn't it? LOL!

      May 13, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • Free

      Frogist-
      Yup, our ancient 'fear mind' seeks to lay blame for disaster. So, in a desperate attempt to stop the force behind calamity, they look to those who aren't complying with the majority.

      Witches, another example, were just women who lived independently in a society where the majority of women did not. Witches supposedly kept black cats, and you can trip up on a black cat easier than any other in the dark, so they're the worse kind of cat to have. Anyone keeping such an animal might be seen as doing so intentionally just to harm others. Since many of these women were also healers and mid-wives whatever failures they experienced professionally could be spun into intentional cause of harm as well. Gays and Atheists too are just the 'witches' of this era. We're in the minority, so it's easy to sacrifice us in the hopes of the majority getting better luck for themselves.

      May 13, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  4. Italici

    oops....correcting my own misspelling...correct spelling is Triskaidekaphobic... 🙂

    May 13, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  5. Vicki

    Black cats are rare?

    May 13, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • Free

      My thoughts exactly! I know of three people personally who own them.

      Now, imagine if all the black cat fearers out there banned together and lobbied the government to make them illegal because the bad luck they represent is a danger to us all? Sound absurd? Well, think about how many ministers who actually claimed that gays 'caused hurricane Katrina? Aren't they just basically saying that having gays around is bad luck for all of us? Bad luck because they supposedly trigger God's wrath, but it works exactly the same way, and probably sets off the same triggers in our minds.

      May 13, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Owl Stretching Time

      And Friday the 13th is so amazingly incredibly rare that it only occurs at least once a year and sometimes as much as three times a year. Unimaginably rare. Like black cats.

      May 13, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
  6. Rodney

    I I don't fear Friday the 13th. I was born on Sunday the 13th, but I usually have good Friday the 13ths.

    May 13, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  7. Italici

    I am not Trisadekaphobic (the fear of Friday the 13th), I was born on Friday the 13th, AND it was a full moon! I have had many Friday the 13th birthdays, and have loved every one of them! When the subject of Friday the 13th comes up and people ask if I am fearful of it, I respond...Would YOU be if you were BORN on Friday the 13th?? That usually ends that chat. Just have a good, happy day no matter what # Friday falls on...life is too short to worry about such things.

    May 13, 2011 at 11:37 am |
  8. Ichi

    The author's hair lololol

    May 13, 2011 at 11:12 am |
    • Valerie Solanas

      The "Andy Warhol on crack" look is very fashionable right now.

      May 13, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  9. delano j sheffield

    Only friday the 13th I fear is when its not a pay day.
    http://www.holdtotruth.com

    May 13, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  10. max in ny

    it would be nice if the author actually explained the historical significance of friday the 13th rather than just give his opinion. The pope executed the Templars.

    May 13, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • Osama bin Laden

      In my country ... we love Friday 13 .... we put many many gihads on this day.

      May 13, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • True Dat

      The pope and the King of France, Phillip the Fair, to be exact.

      May 13, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • Templar

      Interesting how the fact that the church and king rounded up all of the Templars on Friday, October 13, 1307 and executed them. Yet the author completely ignores this known fact and replaces it with the Last Supper.

      May 13, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • Harry Hippobottomus

      Neither is true. There is no evidence that the Friday the 13th supersti tion existed before 1800. Certainly things happened throughout history on various Friday the 13th's, but as a supersti tion it does not date back very far.

      May 13, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  11. Bjørn Mooseflingengård

    Read the article, replacing the word "supersti-tion" with "religion", and you get a great little insight on why people believe in the invisible man in the sky who needs your money. Great apropos lines from the article, with "religion" substi-tuted in:

    "Religious rituals . . . give us a comforting sense of control over the unexpected when there is nothing more practical that can be done."

    "We carry around a number of fears that seem to be more characteristic of our ancient past."

    "It is all but impossible to avoid learning the supersti-tion in the first place."

    "We should not underestimate the role of the media in keeping this irrational belief alive."

    "Most religions arise as a method of coping with uncertainty. We fret about the important things in our lives: our health, our children, our paychecks and our sports teams. All these things are dear to us and all can be drastically affected in a positive or negative direction by events utterly beyond our control."

    "When bad things happen to us, we may prefer having something to blame."

    And my favorite: "If you have managed to live your life without religion, congratulations. A life of reason is better for us as individuals and as members of society than one spent in service to ghosts and magical thinking."

    May 13, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • Colin

      Well said Bjorn. That post was just begging to be made. Neither being old, being clothed in colored ritual and tradition, nor being being popular can save any religion from the fact that it is simply an elaborate collection of supersti-tions

      May 13, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • dustl

      Yeah, that last one is my favorite too. Yep, thanks for stating the obvious that actually isn't that obvious to most people.

      May 13, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  12. Osama bin Laden

    Hello USA .... I am alive and doing well. Your GOVT. got me a job working in the USA at a 7Eleven.

    May 13, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • Truman Capote

      The author looks like Andy Warhol on meth.

      May 13, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  13. Colin

    Appropriate that a story about a common supersti-tion is included in the religion blog. Most Christian superst-itions, such as a sky-god who reads minds (or "hears prayers" to the extent you see a difference); water and wine turning into flesh and blood; priests with the magic power (or "sacred power" to the extent you see a difference) to forgive sins; an evil devil that wants your soul for all eternity are completely indistinguishable from common childish superst-itons.

    In this vein, to all the Christians out there, which of the following is sillier and why?

    "The wizard, dressed in his purple robe, raised the goblet of wine to the sky. He spoke the magic words of the sacred ceremony to the sky fairy in the heavens and the wine was turned into the blood of the great prophet." or

    "The Catholic priest, dressed in his white robes, raised the chalice of wine toward the sky. He spoke the sacred words of the Catholic mass to God in heaven and the wine was transformed into the blood of Christ."

    May 13, 2011 at 10:50 am |
    • Free

      "In all probability those common juggling words of hocus pocus are nothing else but a corruption of hoc est corpus, by way of [...] imitation of the priests of the Church of Rome in their [...] Transubstantiation." Anglican prelate John Tillotson,1694. 😉

      May 13, 2011 at 11:37 am |
  14. David Johnson

    @Bjørn Mooseflingengård

    You think?

    Cheers!

    May 13, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  15. Bjørn Mooseflingengård

    Religion is supersti-tion.

    May 13, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  16. David Johnson

    Quotes from the article:

    "Most superst_itions arise as a method of coping with uncertainty."

    "Superst_itious rituals and lucky charms give us a comforting sense of control over the unexpected when there is nothing more practical that can be done."

    "If you have managed to live your life without superst_ition, congratulations. A life of reason is better for us as individuals and as members of society than one spent in service to ghosts and magical thinking."

    Amen! and Cheers!

    May 13, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  17. Observer

    Last comment, then I will withdraw, I promise. I took my first test in Latin on a Friday the 13th. I was in 7th grade. I aced it!

    May 13, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  18. The Bobinator

    > Most supersti-tions arise as a method of coping with uncertainty. We fret about the important things in our lives: our health, our children, our paychecks and our sports teams. All these things are dear to us and all can be drastically affected in a positive or negative direction by events utterly beyond our control.

    I'd include religions in there as well. 🙂

    May 13, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  19. Observer

    I grew up in a european village street in house number 13. I lived there "every" Friday for 20 years. And I am still here. Maybe that kind of immunized me toward the unlucky number.

    May 13, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  20. The Bobinator

    Sane rational people don't fear the 13th.

    May 13, 2011 at 10:34 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.