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Friday the 13th: Superstitions surrounding the ominous day

It's Friday the 13th, so you may be one of millions of Americans who will approach this day with fear and trepidation -- or maybe not approach it at all, choosing instead to pull the bed covers over your head and refuse all invitations involving ...

Friday the 13th

It's Friday the 13th, so you may be one of millions of Americans who will approach this day with fear and trepidation -- or maybe not approach it at all, choosing instead to pull the bed covers over your head and refuse all invitations involving dinner, travel, marriage or other risky behavior.

Why? One origin theory for the number 13's unhappy reputation comes out of Old Norse mythology, with Loki the trickster crashing a dinner party attended by 12 other gods and killing one with a spear of mistletoe (which apparently didn't much damage mistletoe's image). Another attributes it to an unhappy event involving the Knights Templar in the 14th century.

As to this particular 13th, a common theory holds that early superstitions about the number 13 at some point combined with equally long-held suspicions about Friday, the sixth day of the week. Gas meets fire.

Many superstitions "relate to how we like to have routines," said Dr. Ric Ferraro, a professor of psychology at UND. "They're comfortable and satisfying. Usually things happen that are good if we follow routine."

It occurs often with athletes. A baseball pitcher always hops over the chalk line between third base and home as he walks to the dugout because he believes stepping on the line could break his rhythm and hurt his control. A basketball player refuses to shave his beard or change his game socks as long as his team is winning.


"They're harmless routines, and they're fun, and if they work there's a story to tell around the water cooler the next morning," Ferraro said.

But superstition or faith in a routine can "get to the point where it causes great disruption of behavior, when it becomes obsession," he said. "You feel you can't go out of the house unless it's a certain temperature, or you have to wash your hands 20 times."

Superstition about Friday the 13th "has the same effect on us as when there's a full moon," he said. "There's a full mythology around it: It's Friday the 13th, so something bad is bound to happen. I'm sure some people will stay home, or they won't ride their bikes or drive their cars. They may take something that's harmless -- hitting all the stoplights on their way to work -- and say, 'Well, it's Friday the 13th, so I knew that would happen.'

"The idea of Friday the 13th is embedded in our collective consciousness. It's usually associated with negative things, so we look for those. Your computer won't work, and you remember that it's Friday the 13th -- and not that the tech support guy told you last week that if you didn't do something your computer might not work."

Paraskevi... what?

Dr. Donald Dossey, a psychotherapist at the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, N.C., specializes in treating phobias. He coined the term paraskevidekatriaphobia to describe the irrational fear of Friday the 13th, "as opposed to those who have a clear, reasonable fear of not being able to say that word."

He estimates the number of Americans in its grip could be more than 20 million.

Any cure?


"Paraskevidekatriaphobia -- when you learn to pronounce it, you're cured!" he tells patients.

And he shares, without recommendation, some of the ancient remedies thought by some to ward off para... uh, the fear of Friday the 13th: walking around your house 13 times, or chewing a piece of beef gristle while standing on your head. (But if you choke or break your neck, do you blame the day or the cure?)

Other scientific minds have taken a crack at the notion that Friday the 13th carries a jinx. Twenty years ago, the British Medical Journal published the abstract of a study titled, "Is Friday the 13th Bad for Your Health?"

As explained in a posting on the Internet site About.com, the study authors looked at traffic volume and automobile accidents on two Fridays -- the 6th and the 13th of the month -- over several years.

"Amazingly, they found that in the region sampled, while consistently fewer people chose to drive their cars on Friday the 13th, the number of hospital admissions due to vehicular accidents was significantly higher than on 'normal' Fridays," according to the review.

The study authors offered this conclusion: "Friday the 13th is unlucky for some. The risk of hospital admission as a result of a transport accident may be increased by as much as 52 percent. Staying at home is recommended."

David Emery, the About.com analyst, cautioned that people shouldn't read too much into that.

"It's unwise to take solace in a single scientific study ... especially one so peculiar," he wrote. "I suspect these statistics have more to teach us about human psychology than the ill-fatedness of any particular date on the calendar."


Ferraro, the UND psychologist, agrees. People seized by fear on Friday the 13th are likely to be cautious, he said, and too much caution can sometimes contribute to bad things happening.

Don't leave Friday!

Emery notes that Friday, as the sixth day of the week, and the number 13 both have unsettling reputations dating back many centuries. It's long been held by some that making your bed on Friday will bring bad dreams. Starting a trip on Friday invites disaster. Having 13 people at a dinner party ... well, it's just not done. One will die within the year.

Putting the two together, which happens one to three times a year (twice this year, including tomorrow) apparently has a multiplier effect. "Some people refuse to go to work on Friday the 13th," Emery writes. "Some won't eat in restaurants," and "many wouldn't think of setting a wedding on the date."

A little more than a century ago, writer Thomas W. Lawson apparently boosted the popular notion that Friday the 13th was an especially unlucky day with a novel titled "Friday the 13th," which had to do with corruption in the stock market.

"It seems unlikely that the novelist ... literally invented that premise himself -- he treats it within the story, in fact, as a notion that already existed in the public consciousness," Emery writes. "But he most certainly lent it gravitas and set it on a path to becoming the most widespread -- or at least the most widely known -- superstition in the modern world."

Call Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1102; or send email to chaga@gfherald.com .

On the Web: Dr. Donald Dossey's website on superstitions and phobias is at http://www.drdossey.com/friday13.html .

Information about the study, "Is Friday the 13th Bad for Your Health" is at http://urbanlegends.about.com/cs/historical/a/friday_the_13th.htm .

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