So another Friday the 13th has come and gone, and as the superstitious among us refrain from changing their beds and hold their collective breath in cautious anticipation of every possible incarnation of earthly misfortune, I thought it might be a good time to actually explore why the world has come to fear this ominous calendar date.
Several theories have been proposed for this almost pathological interest in a combination of day and number which, by all accounts, is no different from any other. They range from the historical to the supernatural, and have inspired entire phobias (see triskaidekaphobia and paraskevidekatriaphobia) that can paralyze and demoralize its sufferers for no apparent reason (aside, of course, from the numerical date on the calendar).
To be entirely fair, there are a few freaky co-incidences that might lead a phobic to sweat profusely on any given thursday the 12th, but none of them are that empirically overwhelming. Take, for instance, the British Medical Journal (“Is Friday the 13th Bad for Your Health?”) that studied the incidence of traffic accidents on two separate days — Friday the 6th and Friday the 13 — over a period of several years. While fewer people tended to take their cars on the road, transport accidents were actually as much as 52% higher on the 13th. Without describing in too much detail the fatal statistical error of mistaking correlation for causation (e.g. “stock markets tend to trade down in the summer — therefore warm weather causes declines in the stock market”), the fact still remains — some people are still morbidly frightened of that most haunting of calendar combinations, and there isn’t a darn thing you can do about it.
It isn’t through lack of effort that the mystery behind this debilitating phobia has yet to be solved. Academics have been scrapping the bottom of the proverbial barrel for years in search of a satisfying intellectual answer, but their findings are no more helpful than anything else you might find in such an unlikely place for practical science.
So far, the number thirteen itself has been linked to various forms of sorcery (13 witches in a coven), mythology (Loki was the 13th Norse god — and feature villain of the 80s smash hit “ghostbusters”!), language (the Turks all but banished the number 13 from their vocabulary) and spirituality (the Egyptians believed that life was a quest for godly immortality consisting of many stages — 12 took place in this life, and the 13th took place in the next), but none of it really explains why people stay home from work when a day like today comes rolling along. In the end, for the estimated 21 million paraskevidekatriaphobes out there, only one thing is important: that feeling of complete and total dread.
In recent years, a more historical account has also emerged, popularized recently by Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code”. Within the context of his well-crafted Christian mythology, a group of marauding guardians of the faith (known formally as the “Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon”, but recognized more colloquially as the “Knights Templar“) were betrayed by the jealous and increasingly bankrupt king of France and his equal in Rome on Friday October 13, 1307.
Pope Clement V had bestowed upon the order a special decree that made them answerable to himself alone, in exchange for their service in protecting christians on pilgrimage to the holy land, and then again for protecting the holy land from marauding Islamic troops. In time, Philip the Fair (as he was known throughout the kingdom) couldn’t stand to see a group of monks wield more power and wealth than a king, and he exacted his revenge by torturing and killing almost every last templar in France, both in a bid to break up their early monastic banking system (the order had become quite wealthy while serving the pope and his Christian flock during the crusades) and to reestablish his own authority within his nation’s borders.
Punishing a group of Christian guardians like that struck such a great blow to European Christians that a fear may have developed surrounding the ominous date on which a pious religious order was betrayed and then silenced by the rule of a depraved monarch. But is that really reason to hide under the covers almost 700 years after the fact?
Somehow, i doubt it…
So now we’re back where we started, and at the risk of making this entire exercise wholly unsatisfying, I may have actually found our answer. This time, it’s predicated on the simple fact that, prior to the 19th century, nobody gave any specific importance to any Friday the 13th. In fact, “Friday the 13th” doesn’t even make an appearance in E. Cobham Brewer’s comprehensive 1898 edition of the “Dictionary of Phrase and Fable“. “Friday, an unlucky day” and “thirteen unlucky” do turn up in this fantastic compendium, but it isn’t until a later edition that the two are finally united, and even then, it’s without much literary fanfare (“a particularly unlucky friday. see thirteen“).
So in the early 1900s, Friday the 13th was simply the confluence of two already “unlucky” items. And what exactly does that prove? Well, perhaps it tells us that what paraskevidekatriaphobes should really be worrying about is any “Friday the 13th” when a “black cat” walks by “under a ladder” made of “broken mirrors” and “witches’ brooms” (although, for matters of linguistic practicality, it may have been abbreviated to save a few letters for all the other phobias out there).
Happy freaky Friday either way!