Why Does Friday the 13th Scare Us So Much?

The superstition is rooted in Western culture and biblical events—but the 13th isn't all bad.

Although superstitions can be arbitrary—a fear of black cats, for example—"once they are in the culture, we tend to honor them."


This year's only Friday the 13th is upon us, and it's paired with a full moon to boot. The occasional calendar quirk has revived old fears of bad luck and calamities ranging from auto accidents to stock market crashes.

Experts say such fears are long ingrained in Western culture, and they've been amply reinforced by the slasher-flick franchise featuring everyone's favorite hockey-masked murderer Jason Voorhees. (Get more Friday the 13th facts.)

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.

Friday the 13th's mental benefits can include a sense of order, something that can be lacking in modern lives, said Rebecca Borah, a professor of English at the University of Cincinnati. Superstitions are attempts to understand and even control fate in an uncertain world. "When you have rules and you know how to play by them, it always seems a lot easier," she said. "If you have Dracula, you can pretty much figure out how to avoid him, or go out and get the garlic and be able to ward off evil. That's pretty comforting."

Friday the 13th can offer structure in a world where random and uncontrollable worries range from school shootings to extreme weather. "It's comforting in that we can sort of handle Friday the 13th," Borah added. "We don't do anything too scary today, or double check that there's enough gas in the car or whatever it might be. Some people may even stay at home—although statistically most accidents happen in the home, so that may not be the best strategy."

Fear Begets Fear

However, Stuart Vyse, a professor of psychology at Connecticut College in New London, pointed out that Friday the 13th certainly does have its dark side—even if we create it within our own minds.

"If nobody bothered to teach us about these negative taboo superstitions like Friday the 13th, we might in fact all be better off," he said in 2013.

People who harbor a Friday the 13th superstition might have triskaidekaphobia, or fear of the number 13, and often pass on their belief to their children, he noted. Popular culture's obsession with fear—think of those Friday the 13th horror films and even this story—helps keep it alive, added Vyse, the author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition.

Although superstitions can be arbitrary—a fear of ladders or black cats, for example—"once they are in the culture, we tend to honor them," said Thomas Gilovich, a professor of psychology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

"You feel like if you are going to ignore it, you are tempting fate," he explained in 2013.

Origins Rooted in Religion

The trepidation surrounding Friday the 13th is rooted in religious beliefs surrounding the 13th guest at the Last Supper—Judas, the apostle said to have betrayed Jesus—and the crucifixion of Jesus on a Friday, which was known as hangman's day and was already a source of anxiety, Vyse said. (Related: "Friday the 13th Superstitions Rooted in Bible and More.")

The two fears merged, resulting "in this sort of double whammy of 13 falling on an already nervous day," he said.

The taboo against the number 13 spread with Christianity and into non-Christian areas, noted Phillips Stevens, Jr., an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Buffalo in New York. "It became extremely widespread through the Euro-American world, embedded in culture, [and] extremely persistent," he said in 2013.

More interesting, he noted, is why people associate any Friday the 13th with bad luck. The answer, he said, has to do with what he calls principles of "magical thinking" found in cultures around the world.

One of these principles involves things or actions: If they "resemble other things in any way of resemblance—shape or sound or odor or color—people tend to think those things are related and in a causal way," he explained.

In this framework, there were 13 people present at the Last Supper, so anything connected to the number 13 is bad luck.

Numerology

Thomas Fernsler, an associate policy scientist in the Mathematics and Science Education Resource Center at the University of Delaware in Newark, said the number 13 suffers because of its position after 12.

According to Fernsler, numerologists consider 12 a "complete" number. There are 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 gods of Olympus, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 tribes of Israel, and 12 apostles of Jesus. (See "Lost Gospel Revealed; Says Jesus Asked Judas to Betray Him.")

Fernsler said 13's association with bad luck "has to do with just being a little beyond completeness. The number becomes restless or squirmy," he said in 2013.

Then there's Friday. Not only was Christ crucified on that day, but some biblical scholars believe Eve tempted Adam with the forbidden fruit on a Friday. Perhaps most significant is a belief that Abel was slain by his brother Cain on Friday the 13th.

Negative Effects

On Friday the 13th, some people are so crippled by fear that they lock themselves inside; others have no choice but to grit their teeth and nervously get through the day.

Interestingly, they may actually encounter a slightly less dangerous world. A 2008 study by the Dutch Centre for Insurance Statistics revealed that fewer traffic accidents occur on a Friday the 13th than on other Fridays. Reports of fire and theft also dropped, the study found.

Nevertheless, many people will refuse to fly, buy a house, or act on a hot stock tip, inactions that noticeably slow economic activity, according to Donald Dossey, a folklore historian and founder of the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina. (Read about animal phobias.)

"It's been estimated that $800 or $900 million [U.S.] is lost in business on this day because people will not fly or do business they normally would do," he said in 2013.

To overcome the fear, Vyse said, people should take small steps outside their comfort zone. Those who are afraid to leave the house could consider meeting a close friend at a cozy cafe, for example.

"Try some small thing that they would be reluctant to do under normal circumstances and gradually experience, hopefully, no horrible thing happen when they push through and carry on," he said.