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. sallyMay

    The "traditional" reason for Friday the 13 being considered unlucky isnt even mentioned. It was the day that King Phillip of France had all of the knights Templar imprisoned and/or killed. This guy is a hack. Not to mention he actually wrote that much about a meaningless subject.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
  2. Vusani

    An opinion piece on Friday the 13th? Is this a high school newspaper?

    December 13, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
  3. Tom

    How can anyone write this much about Friday the 13th without mentioning Apollo 13. (OK, Friday the 13th came on a Wednesday that month, but it was launched at 13:13 and it was Apollo 13).

    December 13, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
  4. Hex

    Who's we? I've never feared the date.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
  5. Mr My Way

    The people who really fear Friday the 13th are just plain stupid

    December 13, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
  6. Dilapidated Emu

    So, everyone get ready to celebrate the 6/13/2014 Friday the 13th that will coincide with the full moon. I just hope someone releases a good horror movie for it.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
    • Clown

      That will be my Birthday, the full moon thing will just make it that much more fun.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
  7. lucky13

    I cannot complain about Friday 13th as I was born on the 13th. I turned 2, 7. 13, 24, 30, 35, 41, and now 53 on Friday 13th. It is a fun day to have a Birthday!

    December 13, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
    • lucky13

      plan on getting married on Friday June 13th 2014.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • Clown

      I will be 46, happy early Birthday bro.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
  8. jez

    What a bland article.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
  9. Doc

    Always thought it was the arrest of the Knights Templar on Friday 13 OCT 1307.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
  10. Liz

    Black cats are anything but rare. What a weird statement.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
  11. Freddo

    Friday the 13th is no problem ... but please, move that ladder ... and someone get that darn black cat out of here!

    December 13, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
  12. Anonymous

    Really makes me wonder what the deal with this author is that he is running down Jesus name and supporting magic and falsifying the Friday the 13th story. For one Bible never says Good Friday happen on the 13th, so that's bunk, and for two the Friday the 13th myth originates much later. Perhaps a subtle hint this author is a mason?

    As the real legend goes:

    Long ago what happened was the Knights Templar briefly occupied Jerusalem. While they were there as the legend goes, the mystical islamic warriors known as Hashashins linked up with them and the two formed one of the most serious black magic cults of all time. The Knights Templar returned to Europe following the conclusion of the Crusades and continued their muslim-magic fusion religion in which they worshipped a figure called Baphomet. When the King of France discovered the Templar's abomination he put almost all of them to death. The Templars that survived went underground and can be traced to founding other occult groups like the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons, etc. To this day Friday the 13th is considerred unlucky by witches because it is the day they were exposed and they use Friday the 13th to spread their message even to this day.

    Or if you prefer the pop culture legend that originated in the late 20th Century a hockey masked mass murderer named Jason Vorhees pretty much ran amok killing people left and right only to be continually thwarted by Jamie Lee Curtis. In later years Jason Vorhees would engage in a battle with his nemesis Freddy Kruger, a rivallry that might still go on to this day.

    Yay for Friday the 13th Mythos!

    December 13, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
    • OS2toMac

      You are getting your "Friday the 13th" (Jason Vorhees) and "Halloween" (Michael Myers w/Jamie Lee) movie series mixed up.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
      • Anonymous

        Ah you sir are correct, my apologies for profaning Jason Vorhees legacy.

        December 13, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
  13. Scott

    ahh, never mind. I see the article was actually written in 2011. Way to recycle.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
    • myrtlemaylee

      IMO, it should have been composted, not recycled. LOL.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
  14. Scott

    When was this article actually written? Because we had another Friday the 13th back in September, contrary to the author's claim that today is the only one this year.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • Randall Ulrich

      This article was originally written/published May 13, 2011. The date is displayed at the top of the article, just below the photo of the calendar.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
  15. Dave

    There are also 13 months in the lunar year (13 full moons every year) and witches worship the moon.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
    • john

      The 13 lunar month idea seems most plausible to me

      December 13, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
  16. tony

    Thinking that the CNN belief blog is worth reading is a sign you are already an unlucky person.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
  17. Henry Allen

    Ordinarily I would say it's a day, like any other. Except, my wife and I had our first date on a Friday the 13th in 1982. Still married. Still very much in love. It's a wonderful day.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
  18. Holly

    The reason this was started is the Knights Templars were assassinated on Friday 13th.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
    • Paulwisc

      False. And it was their leader and some other French Templars who were arrested - not assassinated - in France on Friday the 13th, on the orders of King Philip IV. Scores of Templars, including their leader, were eventually burned at the stake in Paris, but many more were not. The order was dissolved by the Pope, with many of the Templars being absorbed into the Knights Hospitaller.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
    • Daniel

      Absolutely correct, It was a coordinated effort across main land Europe between the nobility and the clergy to kill off the Templars and take their treasure; particularly in France because the coffers were empty. Some escaped to England where the catholic church had no influence.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
  19. Fed up Vet

    Another Reason we fear Friday the 13th is it is also the real day Obama was born. It says so on his real birth certificate from Kenya 🙂

    December 13, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
    • Paulwisc

      It's sad that you're such an ignorant hater that you inject politics into every thread.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
    • BuffaloLT

      Shouldn't you be posting on the Fox News website instead?

      December 13, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
    • MrDifficult

      I fear this sort of ignoramus.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
  20. keithlawson

    Your article is NOT accurate. This is the 2nd Friday the 13th this year, the first being on 9/13/13.

    Shame on CNN for posting an old article from 2011 and not checking the facts first. Great journalism there people!!! How about not being lazy and proof reading your work first.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:47 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.