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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. BaltoPaul

    When my wife and I went on our honeymoon, we were in the 13th row on the plane. We transferred planes, and were again in the 13th row. When I remarked on this to my wife, she said that she preferred to sit near the front of the plane, and the 13th row was the only row with two seats open when she booked the flights.

    Oddly enough, the plane didn't crash, the honeymoon was great, and we've been together for many years.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:46 am |
  2. Brian

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

    Try again. September 13th was on a Friday as well.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:33 am |
    • Guest

      If you read when the article was wrtten, you will see that he was talking about 2011

      December 13, 2013 at 11:45 am |
    • badianbrad

      except this is a reprint from 2011

      December 13, 2013 at 11:47 am |
  3. are122

    I've notice in Florida many condos do not have a 13th floor even if they have 14 or more floors. I always thought that was pretty stupid but I guessed the developers thought many perspective buyers might be stupid...and maybe they were right.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • badianbrad

      I once worked for a company on the 13th floor of an office building. They rented the space on that floor because it cost less than space on other floors. Nothing bad ever happened.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:45 am |
  4. cportes

    I always thought it was because friday the 13th was the date when the knight templars were slain by the Catolic Church...

    December 13, 2013 at 11:05 am |
    • some dude

      The legend is that Jacques de Molay and his soldiers were executed on that day but it doesn't stand up to historical record very well.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
  5. Boo

    To all of those who fear Friday the 13th – It's 2013...the 21st century...wish you were here.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:03 am |
  6. geckopelli

    I don't believe in squat, but Hurricane Charley wiped out my town with an unexpected last minute right turn on Friday, August 13, 2004.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:56 am |
    • clarence

      http://ThePayBird.com/?id=C-And2013

      December 13, 2013 at 11:02 am |
  7. The man

    Wow

    December 13, 2013 at 10:45 am |
  8. Gail D

    My boss died on Friday te 13 – wasn't very lucky for him – in fact that whole week in May '05 was bad.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:34 am |
  9. ozzy3_97

    I find it interest that if you believe in or have fear of good luck and bad luck, it's something we can either thank or blame for what takes place in our lives...:(

    If you believe in the life of Jesus there should never be a cry for what took place. If you believe Jesus came here to save the world and had to go to Hell to do it then you should be dancing in the streets each time you think of it. Wasn't it all supposed to happen, didn't it all have to happen and if you believe, you must accept that the plan was in place, the actors had to perform and nobody actually suffered as the show had to go on so everyone could be a winner...JMO..:(

    December 13, 2013 at 10:33 am |
  10. John

    Oh, look at this! Not only is this a reprint from 2011, it still has attached to it a string of comments from the July 2012 Friday the 13th! Nice to know our comments could last forever.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:33 am |
  11. John

    By the way, why use a picture of Friday the 13th in MAY? Ah, I see-this is a reprint from 2011.

    Also BTW, the name for fear of the number 13 is triskaidekaphobia. Word of the day I guess.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:29 am |
  12. Billy the Atheist!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    How about hotels not having a 13th floor? People are really dumb enough to believe in this stuff and really really dumb enough to think that the 14th floor isnt really the 13th. Calling it 14 doesnt change the math, what comes after 12???????????????????

    December 13, 2013 at 10:23 am |
  13. MIke

    ch ch ch

    December 13, 2013 at 10:21 am |
  14. m1

    Why didn't he tell people that the reason Friday the 13th became infamous is the purge of the Templar Knights in France?

    December 13, 2013 at 10:19 am |
  15. JASON

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

    All except the Friday the 13th that we had in September.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:17 am |
  16. Michael Wingo

    I think a correction needs to be made. 2013 had two Friday the 13ths. 9/13/2013 and today 12/13/2013.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:16 am |
  17. Rock Reynolds

    Who's "we" Keerm-o-Sabe??? Got a mouse in your pants???
    Only the occult is afraid of 13. Sucks to be them.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:05 am |
  18. c b

    There was a Friday the 13th in September of this year as well...

    December 13, 2013 at 10:04 am |
  19. bob

    Um Septmember 13th, 2013 also existed.

    also friday the 13th is the day the Pope killed off the templars. Since the Templars where doing good for the common masses(by providing reliable banking and security) the average person thought the day was unlucky.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:00 am |
    • Ben

      Actually it was the king of France. He owed the Templars a lot of money and arranged for them to all be slaughtered in order to weasel out of his debts. In the end it didn't work, he still ran his economy into the ground. And the first bankers were all killed off.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:08 am |
      • asdrel

        I think it was both of them. The Pope got his cut as well.

        December 13, 2013 at 11:00 am |
    • cportes

      The templars were becoming too powerful, that's why the church prosecuted them. They actually found sanctuary in Portugal where they became the order of Christ, I had the pleasure of visiting their monastery in Tomar.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:11 am |
  20. Weird

    Every comment on this board is slightly off, and the whole article is unbelievable. Really?! Who's afraid of 13?

    December 13, 2013 at 9:59 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.