Some phobias make sense. Fear of spiders or of serial killers, for example. But there is a surprisingly high incidence of people who are afraid of a number. Thirteen, to be exact. Panic ensues whenever the 13th falls on a Friday, and many people are careful not to have thirteen people at their dinner table. There’s even a name for it – triskaidekaphobia.
But why is it such a big deal? And why 13, of all numbers? The history of this fear is wrapped in mystery and misinformation.
Triskaidekaphobia as A Condition
The phobia at the end of this word is, in some ways, misleading. There are very few cases where the superstition is debilitating enough to be considered a phobia, according to DSM-V criteria. However, recent studies have discovered that 9-10% of Americans are superstitious about the number 13. That’s approximately 32 million people.
For those whose superstition goes beyond a touch of anxiety, there are two overlapping conditions. There’s triskaidekaphobia, and its close cousin, friggatriskaidekaphobia – fear of Friday the 13th. The number of people who suffer from these conditions in a psychiatric sense is uncertain.
Treatments for triskaidekaphobia would likely be the same as those for any other phobia. Exposure therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, medication, and hypnotherapy are the typical measures taken.
But why the number 13?
Most of the superstition around the number 13, and Friday the 13th, come from the Bible. It’s said that Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, was last to sit down at the table during The Last Supper. This is known as the Judas Theory. It arose in the 1890s, but it has little value.
Later, it became apparent that the Bible never lists the order that the Apostles sat down to the Last Supper. Only that there were 13 of them.
Friday also figures greatly into these superstitions. Jesus was crucified on a Friday. This day is now celebrated as Good Friday. Some also believe that Friday was the day that Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, and the day that Cain killed Abel.
Of course, this cannot be proven, considering that these events are said to have happened at the beginning of humanity and before the concept of Friday came into existence.
An Ancient Law
Another myth is that the earliest reference to 13 being unlucky is in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. This code is the oldest known piece of writing and is thought to have been produced in around 1780 BCE. It outlines the laws of ancient Mesopotamia, and according to urban legend, there is no 13th law.
Despite the spooky vibe of this, it isn’t true. The laws in the Code of Hammurabi were not originally numbered. The myth originated from one translation of the code that was done by L.W. King in 1910. In this translation, the laws are numbered, and the 13th law has been omitted. There’s no obvious reason why the king would have done this, considering that the 13th law in the code is:
If the seller has gone to his fate, the purchaser shall recover damages in said case fivefold from the estate of the seller.
Every other translation of the Code of Hammurabi includes this law. So, unfortunately, the myth is a bust.
Other Possible Theories
Another theory is that thirteen is considered an unlucky number because of its proximity to twelve. Twelve is often associated with a sense of completeness in Western cultures. There are 12 months in the calendar, 12 zodiac signs, 12 days of Christmas, 12 tribes of Israel, and 12 gods of Olympus. Thirteen, therefore, is an upset in balance.
This theory is supported by the fact that there are also superstitions related to eleven, such as the Eleventh Hour.
There are plenty of other legends explaining why 13 is an unlucky number. The concept of 13 people being bad luck at a dinner table also appears in Nordic myth. The main 12 gods were dining peacefully until the 13th guest, Loki, showed up and caused chaos.
Another theory comes from the idea that women menstruate 13 times a year, that there were always 13 steps leading to the gallows, or that a coven of witches was supposed to have exactly 13 members.
It’s A Cultural Thing
Triskaidekaphobia is a uniquely cultural fear. The concept of 13 being an unlucky number is confined mostly to the West. In some regions, such as Italy, 13 is a lucky number except in some contexts, such as the number of people at a dinner table.
In areas where Cantonese is spoken, like Hong Kong and Macau, 13 is lucky because its pronunciation sounds like the phrase sure to live. And according to lore, Colgate University was started by 13 men with $13 and 13 prayers. So the number is revered on campus, and Friday the 13th is celebrated.
In some cultures, other numbers are regarded with the same fear as 13 is in the West. In a lot of East Asian and Southeast Asian countries, the number 6 is considered so unlucky that it is often omitted from floor and room numbers in public buildings.
In Italy, it’s 17 that makes people uncomfortable. This is because it’s written in Roman numerals as XVII, which can be rearranged into VIXI or I have lived in Latin – a common euphemism for I have died.
In some parts of Afghanistan, 39, or thrice thirteen is considered a curse or a badge of shame.
And don’t forget the paranoia about 666 – this number is cited in the Bible as the number of the Beast. Many people now associate the number with Satanism or devil worship, and its appearance, even in innocuous places, makes people uneasy.
Friday The 13th
An offshoot of these superstitions is a fear of Friday the 13th. Despite beliefs that it’s a rare occurrence, Friday the 13th is relatively common. Mathematically, there is one every 212.35 days. According to the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, NC, an estimated 17 million people in the US are affected by fear of this day.
It’s thought that these anxieties initially came from the idea that Jesus was crucified on a Friday the 13th. However, the prevalence of this phobia – dubbed “friggatriskaidekaphobia” by some scholars – seems to have arisen much later.
In 1907, Thomas W. Lawson published a novel called Friday the Thirteenth. In it, a dastardly stockbroker creates panic on Wall Street by using superstitions about Friday the 13th to lower the value of particular stocks. Scholars now think that this novel helped to spread the idea that people should be superstitious about Friday the 13th.
Another possible origin is in 1307, when Philip IV of France ordered the arrest of the Knights Templar on Friday, October 13. Some legends state that their arrest was related to superstitions about the date. But historical records show that, while the number 13 was probably considered unlucky, Friday the 13th didn’t have any negative attachments at the time. The legend was actually invented in the early 2000s and spread like wildfire when it appeared in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.
In 1881, a group of influential people in New York decided to put an end to these superstitions once and for all. They were led by a US Civil War veteran named Captain William Fowler, and they were known as The Thirteen Club. Their first meeting took place on January 13, 1881 at 8:13pm. Thirteen guests came to have a 13-course dinner in Room 13 of Knickerbocker Cottage. It was an establishment owned by Fowler at the time.
To enter, they passed under a ladder and a banner reading Morituri te Salutamus, which translates to Those of us who are about to die salute you. The table was strewn with spilled salt.
Despite the strange circumstances of these meetings, no bad fortune seems to have appeared as a result of The Thirteen Club’s activities. Copycat clubs sprang up all over North America. The original club continued to run for 45 years, and its membership would include five future US presidents, from Chester A. Arthur to Theodore Roosevelt. It eventually faded out due to lack of interest.
Could It Be True?
Despite widespread skepticism about the dark influence of 13 and Friday the 13th, there are quite a few misfortunes that have occurred in relation to these numbers. These include:
- The German bombing of Buckingham Palace in London, England (September, 1940)
- The murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York, USA (March 1964)
- An oxygen tank explosion on the Apollo 13 mission (April 1970)
- The Bhola Cyclone that killed over 500 000 people in Bangladesh (November 1970)
- The disappearance of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 in the Andes (October 1972)
- The launch of the “Jerusalem virus” that hit computers across Britain (January 1989)
- The death of rapper Tupac Shakur (September 1996)
- The crash of the Costa Concordia Cruise Ship off the coast of Italy that killed 30 people (January 2012)
It’s hard not to take all of this destruction as proof that Friday the 13th is a cursed date. However, you should keep in mind that bad things happen all the time. They don’t just wait for Friday the 13th.
Triskaidekaphobia in the Media
Unsurprisingly, with all of this superstition and panic, there are a ton of books, movies, and other media that use the number 13, or Friday the 13th, as a plot point.
The most famous of these is the Friday the 13th horror movie franchise. It includes 12 feature films, a television show, and multiple video games. The franchise begins with Friday the 13th in 1980, in which Pamela Voorhees embarks on a killing spree during the cursed day to avenge the drowning of her son, Jason. In the rest of the films, Jason Voorhees picks up his mother’s murderous legacy, even going out into space. He is the most iconic horror movie villain ever created, and his kingdom is built on superstition around Friday the 13th.
The number 13 appears over and over again in horror movie lore. It is used as an indicator of the strange, or perhaps the boundary between our world and another dark reality. 13 appears as a room number or house number in all sorts of paranormal shows and films, such as Warehouse 13 in 2011.
Make Up Your Mind
Now that we’ve run down a few superstitions surrounding 13 and Friday the 13th, we’ll leave you to make your own decision. Is 13 just another number, or an indicator of something sinister? Is Friday the 13th a day that brings chaos, or just another X on the calendar?
But be careful. There are things in this world that we still don’t understand.