Why Are We So Scared of Friday the 13th?

From the Knights Templar to Norse mythology, here’s how fear of the spooky date crept into popular culture

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Another supposedly unlucky thing: black cats. Pixabay

Americans have long harbored suspicion of the number 13. Some buildings “lack” a 13th floor—as in, they have one, but it’s sneakily mislabeled in the elevator—and numerous airlines omit a 13th row in their planes. Fear of the number 13 is so prevalent that it has a scientific name: triskaidekaphobia. And at some point, this numeral-based uneasiness combined with a day of the week to create a new object of superstition: Friday the 13th.

In recent years, the date and its eerie reputation have pervaded popular culture. “Fear of Friday the 13th has spawned a horror movie franchise, its own hard-to-pronounce term … and a tradition of widespread paranoia when it rolls around each year,” wrote Time’s Melissa Chan in 2016. Fittingly, this superstition has mysterious origins. Here are some historic reasons for the day’s spooky reputation.

The bad baker’s dozen

The number 12 is a recurring motif in Western traditions. Our clocks have 12 hours, our years have 12 months, our feet span 12 inches and our Christmases last 12 days. Mathematically, 12 is one of the two “sublime numbers.” As the standard “dozen,” it also governs batches of muffins and cartons of eggs. Its neighbor, 13, primarily strikes us as odd because it lands just outside of our familiar mark.

In history and lore, 12-person feasts have turned sour with the addition of a 13th guest. An old Norse myth, for example, tells the story of a dinner party in Valhalla, the realm of the gods. As folklore historian Donald Dossey told National Geographic’s John Roach in 2011, a dozen gods were eating together when an uninvited 13th guest arrived: Loki, the trickster. He used the venue to get up to his usual mischief, encouraging Hodor, the blind god of darkness, to shoot an arrow through Balder, god of joy. “Balder died, and the whole Earth got dark,” Dossey said. “It was a bad, unlucky day.”

A similar story appears in Christianity, at the famed Last Supper of Jesus Christ. That meal also featured 12 diners, until a last 13th guest arrived. It was Judas Iscariot, the archetypal traitor, who soon betrayed Jesus to the Romans.

Over the centuries, references to the number 13 slipped into popular culture. By the late 1800s, 13’s reputation was so poor that one man decided to start advocating for it.

The vilified number had appeared throughout Captain William Fowler’s life. He attended Public School Number 13 in Manhattan, belonged to 13 organizations, built 13 New York buildings, fought in 13 Civil War battles and performed several significant life events on the 13th day of the month. Proud to champion the widely disliked number, Fowler decided to start an anti-suspicion club in its honor. He held the Thirteen Club’s first dinner on Friday, January 13, 1882.

The group would go on to gain numerous high-profile members, including four U.S. presidents: Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison and Theodore Roosevelt. On the club’s first anniversary, a scribe gaily reported, “Out of the entire roll of membership … whether they have participated or not at the banquet table, NOT A SINGLE MEMBER IS DEAD, or has even had a serious illness.”

Flyer for the Thirteen Club
A dinner book for the Thirteen Club New York Public Library

Thank God it’s not Friday

Thirteen’s reputation can’t take all the credit for triskaidekaphobia. Though most people around the world regard Friday positively—as the week’s last workday or part of the weekend—it, too, has some ominous associations. After all, it was on a Friday, after Judas took the Last Supper’s 13th seat, that Jesus was crucified.

Keeping with the biblical theme, the Book of Genesis contains other fateful Friday events. Eve supposedly gave Adam an apple from the Tree of Knowledge on a Friday, reports History.com, and Abel killed Cain on that same weekday.

Painting of Cain Killing Abel
"Cain Killing Abel," attributed to Francesco Maffei Honolulu Museum of Art via Wikimedia

References to Friday’s unluckiness pop up as far back as the 14th century, in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, though without much explanation: “And on a Friday fell all this mischance,” the poet and author wrote.

A star-crossed union: Friday and 13 come together

At some point, the sinister connotations of Friday and 13 united to produce the day we know and love to hate. Negative historical associations with Friday the 13th are sparse, but one significant group, today beloved by conspiracy theorists, did contribute to the legend of this unusually dark date.

The Knights Templar were a military order of medieval Christians. Author Dan Brown brought renewed attention to their story with his 2003 novel, The Da Vinci Code.

The order’s demise began on Friday, October 13, 1307, when some of its members were arrested after France’s Philip IV accused them of heresy. (Really, the knights just had money and power, and the king didn’t like that.) Over the coming days and weeks, many of the Templars were imprisoned, sparsely fed and brutally tortured. As historian Dan Jones writes in The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of the Knights Templar, methods of torment included shoulder dislocation, stretching on the rack, confinement to tiny pits and burning. Hundreds of Templars made false confessions.

Burning of Knights Templar
Detail of a miniature of the burning of the Grand Master of the Templars and another Templar. British Library via Wikimedia

Friday and 13 were definitively linked in superstition by the early 1900s, when a novel titled (you guessed it) Friday the 13th debuted, noted Becky Little for National Geographic in 2016. Written by financier Thomas William Lawson, the 1907 book follows a stockbroker who incites a profit-making Wall Street panic on the day in question. The novel opens with the words “Friday, the 13th; I thought as much. … There will be hell, but I will see what I can do.”

One of the 20th century’s most influential musicians, Austrian-American composer Arnold Schoenberg, had a special relationship with the date. Born on September 13, 1874, he spent his life in fear of the number 13, suffering “horrendous panic attacks” due to triskaidekaphobia, writes humorist Cynthia Ceilan in Thinning the Herd: Tales of the Weirdly Departed. Known for his 12-tone compositions, Schoenberg even skipped 13 when labeling measures, opting instead for “12a” between 12 and 14. It seems a cruel twist of fate, then, that he died at the age of 76, a number whose digits add up to 13, on Friday, July 13, 1951.

More recently, the infamous date was immortalized in the horror universe in 1980, when a movie called Friday the 13th arrived in theaters. It spawned one of the most successful scary movie franchises in cinema history, currently totaling 12 films.

The original is set at a summer camp on Crystal Lake, where a boy named Jason Voorhees drowned 20 years earlier. A group of camp counselors, including a young Kevin Bacon, arrive to prepare the site for its reopening. But one Friday the 13th—Jason’s birthday—nearly all of them are murdered. The film’s working title was A Long Night at Camp Blood, but director Sean S. Cunningham nixed it in favor of the snappy, familiar day of darkness. His movie gave rise to popular culture’s most vivid spooky associations with Friday the 13th, as the ­date thereafter recalled murder, gore and hockey-masked killers.

All in all, Friday the 13th’s spooky reputation has been woven together from stray strands of history and religion. No statistics suggest it harbors more misfortune than other dates. But that hasn’t stopped plenty of people from being consumed by triskaidekaphobia, particularly as the date—which falls on a Friday during the month of Halloween this year—draws ever closer.

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