Why Do We Fear Friday the 13th?

At the Haunted Walk, we are always excited to see Friday the 13th when flipping through the calendar. The superstitious nature of that infrequent date always makes for an extra spooky night of tours. Two questions come to mind. How did this seemingly random date take on such an ominous presence in Western culture? And, is there any data to support that Friday the 13th is an unlucky or cursed day? (Check out our podcast on curses for more hexing fun!)

Despite the fact that “Friday” and “13” are seen as ominous by many cultures, the combination is a relatively new tradition. There is no record of “Friday the 13th” as a concept until the 19th century. In the 1890s, the belief that the number 13 was unlucky began to circulate due partly to religion. Jesus and his twelve disciples were the number of attendees at The Last Supper. After being betrayed, Jesus was crucified on a Friday – Good Friday. Already viewed with suspicion individually, these events combine to make “Friday” and the “13th”, a powerful harbinger of darkness.

Popular culture has played a significant role in spreading the superstition from storytelling around a campfire to many fictional novels and sensational movies. An early example is Thomas W. Lawson’s well-read 1908 novel, “Friday, the Thirteenth“. It features a greedy stock broker who takes advantage of Friday the 13th fears to create panic on Wall Street. More recently, the “Friday the 13th” film franchise has made close to a billion dollars in box office revenue (when adjusted for inflation). Jason is featured as a more literal monster, who visits the innocent campers at Crystal Lake with murderous intentions.

Donald Dossey, a folklore historian and founder of the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina estimates that 17 – 21 million people in the United States are affected by fear of Friday the 13th. (If we extrapolate, we are talking over 3 million Canadians!) He concluded that millions of dollars are lost from the economy each Friday the 13th due to people refusing to travel on that date or generally being more conservative in their choices to “play it safe.”

Is there any hard evidence to support our fear of Friday the 13th? Maybe. An often cited study published by the British Medical Journal in 1993 reported that, “the risk of hospital admission as a result of a transport accident may be increased by as much as 52 percent” on Friday the 13th. Yikes! While the raw data was accurate, the article was published in the Christmas edition of the Journal which featured fun and spoof articles. It does not seem intended to be taken seriously.

In 2008, the Dutch Centre for Insurance Statistics revealed some interesting findings. Over a two year period, they received reports of an average 7,800 traffic accidents each Friday. When the 13th fell on a Friday, the average figure was only 7,500. They also found that there were fewer incidents of fire and theft, although the average value of losses on Friday the 13th was slightly higher.

This is a chicken or egg problem. What came first? The curse, or the fear of the curse?

“Unfortunately, most studies dealing with Friday the 13th and the number 13 are solely focused on statistical data, such as accident data, stock exchange data, etc., without any attempt to establish a ‘direct’ relationship between belief, or superstition, and behaviour,” says Igor Radun of the Human Factors and Safety Behaviour Group at the University of Helsinki’s Institute of Behavioural Sciences in Finland. “Therefore, it is not surprising that contradictory results may occur … In our study, we did not find that either women or men have more injury road accidents on Friday 13th compared to previous and following Fridays.”

To celebrate this Friday the 13th, join us on a tour in Toronto, Ottawa or Kingston!