January 13, 2012

Friday the Thirteenth

        Happy Friday the Thirteenth!  We'll have three of them this year, the most possible in a calendar year.  (Every calendar year must have at least one, and at most three Friday the Thirteenths.)  2012 is extra-special, though, in being a leap year with three Friday the Thirteenths, something that happens only once every 28 years.  And that gives an extra fillip of fun to the phobic: our three Friday the Thirteenths are each exactly thirteen weeks apart.
        But what's so special about Friday the Thirteenth anyway?  Like most superstitions it's basically a fantasy, and as such it can be used to set the scene for a fantastical occurrence.  George Orwell's 1984 famously begins with clocks striking thirteen, which of course is not fantasy when you use a 24 hour clock, but nevertheless taps into the superstition of unlucky thirteen to set the stage.  When you do have a twelve-hour clock, the thirteenth strike heralds in not just mere unpleasantness, but actual magic, as in Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce.  The ill-omen of thirteen plays into the atmosphere of the Duke's dark castle in James Thurber's The Thirteen Clocks, too.  Friday the Thirteenth sets the magic for at least some versions of the body switch in Freaky Friday by Mary Rodgers, but not surprisingly, the majority of fantasy based on Friday the Thirteenth is of the horror variety.  (Ugh.)
        Thirteen has had a long history of superstition in many cultures around the world.  Two of the most common "reasons" are that in Norse mythology Loki was the thirteenth god to join the party at which he caused the death of Baldur, and in Christian lore Judas was the thirteenth disciple, who caused the death of Jesus.  Really thirteen is probably seen as an imperfect number because it's one more than the nice mathematical roundness of twelve.  But what about when the thirteenth day of the month falls on a Friday?  What's that all about?
        A study in 1907 asked 1,875 college students to list all the superstitions they knew of.  Only two listed "If the 13th day of the month comes on a Friday, evil things are more likely to happen than at any other time."  But in 1933 another study found that 95% of seniors at seven colleges believed that "Friday the 13th always brings bad luck."  Something happened in between to popularize a new superstition.
        In the nineteenth century you had unlucky 13 and you also had Friday as the unluckiest day of the week.  When they came together it was extra unlucky, but only because two separate bad lucks were both in force, like if you were to drop a mirror onto a black cat or something.  (Which is the perfect place to mention a silly bit of Friday the Thirteenth trivia.  In 1939 the town board of French Lick, Indiana ordered that for the 24 hour period of Friday the 13th all black cats in town had to wear bells so that superstitious residents could more easily avoid them.)  Before 1908 the date was always written with a comma, "Friday, the 13th," as in two separate bits of information.  But in 1907 Thomas W. Lawson published a novel called Friday, the Thirteenth about stock traders who took advantage of superstition to crash the market.  It wasn't just the now-forgotten book itself that popularized the idea, though.  Lawson launched a huge and on-going marketing campaign in which he took out large ads in the New York Times pushing the superstition by way of pushing interest in his book.  Apparently it worked.  Now "Friday the Thirteenth" is considered one of the most common and well-known superstitions.  (Except in Spanish-speaking countries, where it's Tuesday the Thirteenth you have to watch out for.)
        Finally, you'll need to know what to call the fear of Friday the Thirteenth that you'll find in books and possibly real life.  The first word is friggatriskaidekaphobia, named after Frigga, the Norse goddess after whom Friday is named.  The rest of the word is the more commonly known triskaidekaphobia, fear of the number thirteen, which first appeared in a psychology text in 1910.  (It's built from Greek roots, although it's the Greek for "three and ten" rather than the Greek for "thirteen.")  Another word for fear of Friday the Thirteenth is paraskevidekatriaphobia, from the Greek roots "Friday," "thirteen," and, of course, "fear."  Most sources say this word was coined by therapist Dr. Donald Dossey, but one source said it first appeared in 1911 and was first written in a mainstream source in 1953.  I don't know when Dr Dossey was born, but as he's still alive and working I have my doubts that he was coining psychotherapy jargon a hundred years ago.  Somebody must be wrong on this!
        Anyway, instead of thinking of Friday the Thirteenth as an unlucky day, it would be a lot more fun to think of it as a magical day, and enjoy!

[Pictures: illustrations by Marc Simont, from The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber, Simon & Schuster, 1950;
Guardian Cat, linocut by Carol Wilhide, 1993.]

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