Friday 13th is instinctively linked to bad luck, strange happenings and a hockey-masked murderer in a slasher flick of the same name. But before Jason Voorhees made his mark in 12 films about the infamous day, how did the superstition come to exist?
Folklore historians suggest that Friday the 13th actually comes from two separate superstitions rooted in ancient history: the evil of the number 13 and the bad luck of Friday – each with a string of mythical narratives of their own. Nordic mythology tells a tale of the 12 gods gathering for a dinner party, when a 13th guest walked in uninvited. The guest was Loki, a mischievous, trickster god who took his bow and arrow and shot Balder the Beautiful, a god who represents joy and gladness. In Christianity, some believe that Judas – one of Jesus’ 12 apostles – arrived as the 13th guest to the Last Supper. The next morning, it was Judas who betrayed Jesus, leading to his arrest and crucifixion.
But some say the number 13 is also considered unlucky because of its place after the number 12. In numerology 12 is associated with completeness: whole, perfect and harmonious, as seen in the 12 apostles, 12 Olympic Gods, 12 animals in the Chinese horoscope, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 numbers on a clock face and the 12 months in the Gregorian calendar. Thirteen – by default – is awkward, ungainly, restless, squirmy and odd by comparison with this ‘perfect’ number.
Friday’s associations have a weaker background. It’s been suggested that Friday carries certain meaning in Christian tradition. For example, as described in the creation story, Eve gave Adam the poisonous fruit that had them exiled from God’s Garden of Eden on the seventh day of creation – Friday. It was on Friday that Cain killed his brother Abel in the myth of the two brothers. Friday was known already known as hangman’s day and Christ’s crucifixion on a Friday probably saw the two fears merge into one.
Psychologically, for some this fear can be crippling. Some people have a condition called triskaidekaphobia, or fear of the number 13, others have paraskavedekatriaphobia, a morbid fear of Friday 13th; others grit their teeth and nervously get through the day. Many people will refuse to fly – let alone sit in row 13 – buy a house, or act on a hot stock tip, inactions that noticeably slow economic activity every Friday 13th with millions of pounds being lost as people will not fly or do business as normal. It is a learned fear, like so many others, in which others teach us negative taboo superstitions like not walking under ladders, keeping clear of black cats and not breaking mirrors.
But take heart. Some research suggests you may actually be a bit safer on this ill-omened day. And superstitions, when not taken to extremes, can even give some believers a psychological boost. Superstitions are human attempts to understand – and even control – fate in an uncertain world and surviving the day unscathed can offer both comfort and structure in a world full of random and uncontrollable worries. However, a word of warning to those who answer is to stay at home on Friday 13th – statistically this is where most accidents happen!