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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. I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

    Only a handful of comments on this retread today.

    But I'm missing something. What useful content are these posters talking about?

    July 13, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
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    April 20, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
  7. Danae

    I have never feerd Friday the 13 th befor

    January 13, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  8. Muneef

    Fate of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is unclear after attack on his compound
    Government officials in Yemen say President Ali Abdullah Saleh survived the assault by tribal foes, but an opposition TV station says he was killed in the attack. As battles erupt around the capital, there is speculation he has been wounded.

    http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/middleeast/la-fg-yemen-president-attack-20110604,0,2006049.story

    The attack took place on Friday  03/06/2011
    3+6+2+1+1= 13 

    June 5, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
  9. alsmeer1

    not everyone believes in 'friday 13 fear junk. I put my trust in God. He said, perfect love (His) casts out fear.

    May 29, 2011 at 10:17 am |
  10. Beverly Kurtin, Ph.D.

    I must apologize to Professor Vyse; I was wrong and he was right. For years I'd believed that the fear of Friday the 13th was because of the mass murder of the Templars. Dr. Vyse was kind enough to correct of my belief and I thank him for his kindness. His books are fascinating, I bought one for my Kindle and will be getting his other book at a bookstore tomorrow. Again, I apologize. Thanks for clearing that up for me Dr Vyse!

    May 21, 2011 at 10:24 pm |
  11. Beverly Kurtin, Ph.D.

    OMG! This article just proves that being a professor doesn't make you educated or knowledgeable. The true reason for fearing Friday the 13th and anything with the number 13 goes back to the Knights Templar. They protected the heinous pilgrims who wanted to rip Jerusalem from the hands of the Turks. I call them heinous because of the amount of innocent blood they spilled on their way to and from Jerusalem. They are like today's Muslims, if you didn't believe the way they did, then you were infidels, thus killing on a wholesale was something the fools thought would make God happy. Of course that meant ignoring one of the ten commandments: You shall not murder. It does NOT say You shall not kill; the Hebrew word for murder is wrongly translated "kill."
    Getting back to lucky thirteen: The Templars were incredibly wealthy. The King of France, one Phillip the Fair decided that he wanted their gold and they, the Templars, thumbed their noses at him and said, "Hell no." So he put the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar on trial and demanded to know who his comrades were and where the gold was hidden. To make a long story short, Phillip rounded up and killed as many of the Templars as he could find. On OCTOBER 13, 1307Jacques de Molay and about thirteen thousand Knights Templar and subordinates were arrested and charged with setting the welfare of Knights Templar above the welfare of every religious and moral duty and participating in secret collusion with the Moslems. This was done by King Phillip le Bel of France in direct defiance of the Pope, the hand-picked vassel of the King. What was that date again? OCTOBER 13, 1307.
    THAT IS THE REASON CHRISTIANITY SEES THE 13TH AS A BAD NUMBER AND FRIDAY THE 13TH, THE DATE OF THE SLAUGHTER OF DE MOLAY AND HIS PEOPLE.
    Professor...before you write an article, know what you are talking about.
    The site http://arkphagrandlodge.com/knightstemplar.htm has more information, some of which I quoted above. I have known about what happened to DeMolay and his followers for years when I did a paper about triskaidekaphobia (the fear of the number 13).
    Connecticut College, coincidently, is located in New London, CT and used to be the Connecticut College for Women where I studied in the late '50s.

    May 21, 2011 at 1:59 am |
    • Mugo

      Not to mention he also stated "this year, today is the only friday the 13th. Well, except for January of this year. So it's 1/2 correct.

      July 13, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Mugo,

      check your calendar. The article was posted on May 13, 2011.

      It's a retread.

      July 13, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
  12. Muneef

    Tonight is a Full Moon so be careful and watch out from werewolves....

    May 16, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
  13. AGuest9

    WE who??? Why is it any scarier than any other Friday?

    May 16, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
  14. Alex

    Forgive me for jumping in like this, but please relax with all the religion. Religious debates are kind of pointless because no one knows if there's even a divine force to begin with. I see Adelina somewhat advocating God and it just bothers me. Let it go. Can't we just keep everything secular?

    May 15, 2011 at 11:02 pm |
    • AGuest9

      Keeping it secular means leaving out all the voodoo! Like 13 being evil because there was suppossedly 13 people at the last supper and it broke up at midnight ("Good Friday"), when Jesus went out to the Garden.

      May 16, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  15. Muneef

    [2:0] In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful

    [2:1] A.L.M.

    [2:2] This scripture is infallible; a beacon for the righteous;

    Three Categories of People 
    (1) The Righteous
    [2:3] who believe in the unseen, observe the Contact Prayers (Salat), and from our provisions to them, they give to charity.

    [2:4] And they believe in what was revealed to you, and in what was revealed before you, and with regard to the Hereafter, they are absolutely certain.

    [2:5] These are guided by their Lord; these are the winners.

    (2) The Disbelievers
    [2:6] As for those who disbelieve, it is the same for them; whether you warn them, or not warn them, they cannot believe.

    [2:7] GOD seals their minds and their hearing, and their eyes are veiled. They have incurred severe retribution.

    (3) The Hypocrites
    [2:8] Then there are those who say, "We believe in GOD and the Last Day," while they are not believers.

    [2:9] In trying to deceive GOD and those who believe, they only deceive themselves without perceiving.

    [2:10] In their minds there is a disease. Consequently, GOD augments their disease. They have incurred a painful retribution for their lying.

    [2:11] When they are told, "Do not commit evil," they say, "But we are righteous."

    [2:12] In fact, they are evildoers, but they do not perceive.

    [2:13] When they are told, "Believe like the people who believed," they say, "Shall we believe like the fools who believed?" In fact, it is they who are fools, but they do not know.

    [2:14] When they meet the believers, they say, "We believe," but when alone with their devils, they say, "We are with you; we were only mocking."

    [2:15] GOD mocks them, and leads them on in their transgressions, blundering.

    [2:16] It is they who bought the straying, at the expense of guidance. Such trade never prospers, nor do they receive any guidance.

    May 15, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
  16. Muneef

    Friday the 13th at Halloween night of a full moon....!? How about that mix at one night of horror ....!?

    May 15, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      That would be pretty scary for Oct 31to occur on the 13th.

      May 16, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
  17. Eric G

    As I find myself reflecting on the significance of Friday the 13th, I would ask....

    WWJD?

    What Would Jason Do?

    May 14, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • Peace2All

      @Eric G.

      Hey Eric..

      Excellent...LOL...!!!!!! 🙂

      Peace brother...

      May 15, 2011 at 3:31 am |
    • Adelina

      @Eric: "Jason" means "healer" in Greek. You can't escape from the goodness of God. Repent of your stupidity.

      May 15, 2011 at 4:01 am |
    • Eric G

      @Adelina: "Jason" means unstoppable, machete wielding a$$ kicker in Camp Crystal Lake.

      One cannot escape the goodness of god becuase god is not real.

      One cannot escape Jason Voorhies unless you are a virgin.

      Jason is more real than your god. Perhaps we can have a debate to provide evidence as to which character, your god or Jason Voorhies, has a greater claim to reality. Let me know when you are ready to proceed. I would not blame you for fearing this debate. It is always wise to fear Jason.

      Fear the Goalie Mask!

      May 15, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • Adelina

      @Eric, your thinking is too local. There are thousands of Jasons out there. This crazy Jason just belong to you. No one is stupid enough to ask for a moral guideline, "What would an atheist do"?

      May 15, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
    • Know What

      Adelina,

      Once again, you step in with no clue about what is being referred to (not that it's so necessary in life to know about this fictional character - just that if you don't, stay out of it).

      Jason Voorhees is the lead character in rather famous movies and books by the name of, "Friday the 13th". "What Would Jason Do" is a clear reference to them.

      It would be like saying, "What Would Huck Do" (Huckleberry Finn) in reference to a racial discrimination problem.

      May 15, 2011 at 11:22 pm |
    • AGuest9

      @Adelina, You quip, "No one is stupid enough to ask for a moral guideline, "What would an atheist do"?"

      Why is it that you believe that an atheist couldn't be the judge of moral guidelines? Morality CERTAINLY is not the sole domain of religion! Far from it.

      May 16, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  18. Adelina

    This type of super sti tions will get only worse in the neo-pagan West unless Westerners stop attacking Christian churches.

    May 14, 2011 at 8:37 am |
  19. wendy5

    friday the 13th was the day that the catholic pope gathered all the templers and burned them at the stake;go read about the templers;

    May 14, 2011 at 7:47 am |
    • KeninTexas

      Wendy,,,,, why don't you go read about it since the Pope didn't have anything to do with their arrest. It was King Philip of France, who was in debt to the templars and wanted to beat them out of what he owed them, who was out to get them. The Pope actually begged for them to be released.

      May 15, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  20. Adelina

    I don't. Every Friday is a good day to remember the Good Friday. There is no luck or disluck in this world.
    God is sovereign and He is in control. One should fear only if he might sin against God, nothing else.

    May 14, 2011 at 3:09 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.