Do we have a superstitious belief in widespread superstition?

Do we have a superstitious belief in widespread superstition? January 3, 2013

Is 2013 an Unlucky Year?” Hemant Mehta asks — quickly and correctly answering “No.”

He points us to this Philadelphia Inquirer article: “Those who dread number 13 face a troubling year.”

But it seems the Inky’s Michael Matza couldn’t find any such troubled and dread-filled triskaidekaphobes. Everyone he cites is someone who argues against the irrational fear of the number 13.

If this is such a big deal for so many people, shouldn’t such people be easy to find? When Matza reports that:

An estimated 17 million to 21 million people in the United States experience fear of the ill-fated integer, with symptoms ranging from mild anxiety to full-blown panic attacks, Donald Dossey, founder of the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, N.C., said in a 2004 interview. …

I call shenanigans. First due to the hopeless muddle of the infinite range there — “from mild anxiety to full-blown panic attacks.” So we could be talking about 20.9 million people on the “mild anxiety” end of that range — people whose main discernible “symptom” is saying something like, “Nah, not that one — gimme Jeter. No. 2, duh,” when the bar softball team jerseys are being distributed. And I’m doubtful of the claim that those at the other end of the range are really suffering panic attacks due to the number 13 and not to some other source of trauma or illness.

But mainly I call shenanigans because the source of this statistic is “founder of the Stress Management Center.” So you can pay him to lift the bad juju of your superstitious fears. Hmm.

Anyway, here’s the bit that really intrigued me in this article:

Triskaidekaphobia — the fear of 13 — is a dread so common that some buildings don’t label their 13th floors …

The idea of 13 as an “unlucky number” is a widely known bit of folklore. But does widespread awareness of such folklore really translate into this “dread so common” that Matza’s article asserts and assumes without ever supporting that claim with data or first-hand account?

Say you’re the manager of a 15-story downtown hotel, or even the manager of a 24-unit motor lodge on some stretch of American highway.

If it turns out that, in fact, that tens of millions of your potential customers do have a superstitious dread of the number 13, then renumbering the floors or the units of your business would be a rational business decision. If Mr. Dossey’s dubious figures are correct, then something like 7 percent of the populace has some degree of discomfort with that number, and you might marginally improve your potential business by accounting for that discomfort. Their fear may be baseless and irrational, but it could have a tangible, measurable effect on your business.

But it might also be that this widespread dread of the number 13 is, itself, a baseless and irrational belief. Without far more evidence than Matza’s article provides, it may be that renumbering the floors or units in your business would itself be a form of superstition — an irrational fear of dread-filled potential customers who may not actually exist.

Anyway, Hemant is right — 2013 is no more nor less “lucky” than any other year, just as Friday the 13th is no more nor less “lucky” than any other day.

Unless, of course, you’ve done something to earn an abiding dread of Friday the 13th. In that case, there’s nothing irrational about fearing that date and the haunting visitation it may bring.

But there’s still time — we won’t see another Friday the 13th until September, so you’ve still got nine months to repent and to work for justice.

(That last link goes to “Friday the 13th: A ghost story,” which is my attempt to invent a new legend about the ghost of Frederick Douglass. It hasn’t caught on yet — probably partly due to the way I keep introducing it as “my attempt to invent a new legend.”)


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  • hidden_urchin

    Why?  Why did you introduce me to creepypasta?  Now I’ll never sleep again.

    I’ll be too busy reading.

  • My grandfather was another of those born on a 13th, and I’m pretty sure I’ve heard it was a Friday as well – though I may just be confusing that with every time it arrived on a Friday and someone noting it. Still, he lived to a ripe old age, was still surprisingly physically fit when he went, had his share of medical and other misfortunes, but also lived most of his life with the woman he fell in love with at first sight, and fell in love-at-first-sight with him as well. He always swore he wouldn’t die first because there was no way he’d go and leave her alone, but that he’d be right behind her. After she passed on, it was less than a year before he went.

    It was sad to see them go, but if going together with the one you’ve loved for fifty-some years and leaving behind a lot of people who love and remember you… if that’s bad luck, damn, what would I want with good?

  • BaseDeltaZero

    In fact, the solstice was actually at 11:12 GMT; at least one website, however, stated that the U.S. Naval Observatory had changed the time from 11:11, as part of a conspiracy I guess.

    I like how the US Naval Observatory apparently has the power to change the time of the solstice now.

  • Magic_Cracker

    In fact, the solstice was actually at 11:12 GMT; at least one website, however, stated that the U.S. Naval Observatory had changed the time from 11:11, as part of a conspiracy I guess.

    I like how the US Naval Observatory apparently has the power to change the time of the solstice now.

    You see, what they do is launch a very powerful rocket toward the east…

  • Magic_Cracker

    Or is it to the west?

  • MaryKaye

    If you wrote 11:11 in Mayan numbers it wouldn’t look like anything special; they use base 20.  (Eleven is dot over two horizontal bars:  two fives and one in the ones place.)

    I did a report on this in high school, can you tell?

  • I like how the US Naval Observatory apparently has the power to change the time of the solstice now.

    Probably in collusion with the International Earth Rotation Service…

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Only if the LAX Marriott, Adams Mark Philadelphia, and Pittsburg Convention Center Westin are “old hotels”.

  • arghous

    A superstitious belief in unlucky number 13 might or might not be widespread superstitious, but as has already been pointed out, belief in unlucky number 666 most definitely is widespread superstitious.

    Why didn’t Nancy Reagan’s astrologer ease her poor, credulous mind about her Bel-Air address?  Oh, wait…

    No, I take that back.  The Bible has always had plenty of room for all manner of numerological nonsense.  You can call shenanigans all you want, but if anything is primed for glorious superstition, it’s Christianity, and that is, alas, quite widespread.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    (Winter solstice at 11:11 => world ends–a few steps seem to be left out there. As they say, show your work.)

    1)  Collect Underpants
    2)  ?????
    3)  Profit!

  • vsm

    Just spreading the word.

  • Gosh, would that year of your birth, by any chance, be 1985? ;)

  • I also have a birthday on a 13th, but  I’m pretty sure I wasn’t born on a Friday. I won’t have another Friday birthday until 2015, but I usually look forward to them. The last one did lead into a pretty bad year, but nothing worth posting at length about. And Friday birthdays are better than most for celebrating in some ways.

  • I’ve been considering putting together a minor ‘pantheon’ of the Saints of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, and populating my life with feast days in their honor, with Fridays the Thirteenth, of course, marked as specially dedicated to the Ghost of Frederick Douglass.

    I just want you to know you’re not alone.  We also celebrate Bayard Rustin’s Birthday at my house, with a vegetarian feast, a toke, and plans to make some kind of angelic trouble during the year.

  • P J Evans

     The building I work in doesn’t have a 13th floor. No equipment floor, there, either, so it’s really not there.

  • Freak

    Well, the tradition about 13 at dinner is allegedly because of what happened at The Last Supper.

    (Then again, the Greeks also had a problem with 13, with Hestia / Vesta stepping down when Bacchus / Dionysius was denoted a god.)

  • My grandmother died three days after my grandfather. She had serious memory problems due to multiple strokes, so my family did not tell her about his death — she would not remember anyway and it would just be cruel for the few minutes that she could understand it. (He was still living on his own, though with some assistance; she had to live in a nursing home.) But her pastor decided to negate the family’s decision and tell her anyway. And she had her last stroke. 

  • Keulan

    I don’t know how widespread fear of the number 13 is, but Mitch Hedberg make a few jokes about it. Superstitious fear of the number 666 might be more common.

  • MaryKaye

    What number system was used for the numbers in _Revelation_?  It was written in Greek but I have no idea what the native numbering system looked like.  Like Roman numerals, or something else?

    It’s interesting that no one is afraid of 616.  The shape of a number has a huge effect on its perceived importance.  (I once woke up from a night terror and saw the digital clock reading “1:11”.  Convinced that it was a bomb and was about to explode, I yanked it out of  its socket, threw it on the bed, and…went back to sleep.  I had some explaining to do in the morning.)

  • ISTR a story being told about a person who died at 8:20 and strange events after that happened such that objects would create angles of 140 degrees (which is about the angle the hands on a clock would make to register that time).

    Not sure it makes sense with so little context, but the oddest numbers (if you’ll pardon the accidental pun w/ odd-even) seem to create weird situations.

  • AnonymousSam

    Just break your brain on a particularly bad one. One or two doses of THEN WHO WAS PHONE ought to do it.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I’ve been considering putting together a minor ‘pantheon’ of the Saints
    of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, and populating my life with feast
    days in their honor, with Fridays the Thirteenth, of course, marked as
    specially dedicated to the Ghost of Frederick Douglass.

    Ooo. I like.

    Does it necessarily have to be ‘Fraternity’, though? Is there a gender-neutral term for the concept? Or, looking up the slogan on Wiki, liberté and égalité were consistently used but fraternité wasn’t always the third–maybe unity, or charity, or friendship? (that last rhymes better in French)

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Knights templar.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Our local ABC radio station is 666 AM. Haven’t heard of anyone being upset by it, just amused. The station’s ads say “the number of the be(a)st”.

  • When my family owned a small print shop (Most copies were self-serve. Neither my dad nor customers were amused that I put a picture of Judge Dredd over the notice that “You must pay for your mistakes” but I was.)

    ANyway… $6.66 came up a LOT. It happened to be the tax-included price for some round number of copies I can’t do the math for right now. We had a lot of strange people that the total bothered. Sometimes sold them an extra copy or two to prevent it.

  • I’m surprised the practice doesn’t tempt less serious folks to give in to their worst impulses… (Black Adder skit attached)–HR7PWfp0

  • Kiba

    Ha! When I was in college and my roommates decided to throw one of their parties at our place we had some of the theatre kids there and they were talking about “the Scottish Play.” I was unfamiliar with the superstition and gave them a blank look then went, “Ohhhh! You mean Macbeth!” They proceeded to freak out to the point that it went from slightly amusing to incredibly irritating** rather quickly, so I ended up saying Macbeth a lot that night because I get mean when people irritate me. 

    **They had that snotty attitude of the actors in your Black Adder clip and that never goes over well with me. 

  • Kiba

    Also, federal government phone numbers in Vancouver start off as 666-xxxx :P

    You know, I would actually like to get a phone number that was 666-6666. One, I’m pretty sure quite a few people would stop calling me and, two, it would be the only phone number that didn’t take me years to memorize. 

  • Ima Pseudonym

    Here’s some more concentrated creepyawesome for your perusal :D

    I’ll just post the url bare, since I don’t seem to remember the HTML for turning things into active links. Since I’m bombed out of my skull on cough meds, most likely it wouldn’t turn out well anyway.

  • Ima Pseudonym

     Hey, it made itself clickable.  Awesome.

  • In my family Friday 13th was a running joke because supposedly we always had good luck on it for some reason.

    I now live in a maisonette with the number 13 because when we were looking for a ground floor flat (mum was in a wheelchair) mum decided the fact it was number 13 meant it would be lucky.

    How 13 became associated with good luck in my family I don’t know. My gran was supersticious to the point it got silly. Touch wood if you say anything positive about the future (or the wood spirits will stop it happening to punish you), no daffodils in the house (someone will die), don’t walk under ladders (I invariably walk under ladders and have done since I was teen – it was a minor rebellion), don’t do this, don’t do that, do this, do that or the universe will punish you. Looking back I wonder if she wasn’t suffering from OCD (she had other rituals that had nothing to do with superstition like cleaning the house daily from top to bottom in a particular order) on top of her other (diagnosed) mental health issues. Yet in spite of this she loved the number 13.

  • fraser

     There’s an excellent book I read on the 13 superstition that quotes hotel-industry people who say they’ve never run into anyone who really worries about the 13th floor. But skipping it doesn’t cause them any problems, so why not just go ahead?

  • fraser

     According to the book I mentioned above, the earliest accounts of triskedekaphobia are in that specific “13 at dinner” form.  The idea of Friday the 13th being unlucky the book traces to a novel “Friday, the 13th” written in the early 20th century.

  • fraser

     I had a customer once “show” me how all bar codes actually add up to 6-6-6.

  • vsm

    I’d go with solidarity.

  • christopher_y

    I’d institute a calendar with 13 months, 28 days per month, every month beginning on Sunday and ending on Saturday.

    Where would you intercalate* the odd day, or days in a leap year?

    *The free online dictionary reassures me I’m not making that word up.

  • The_L1985

     I’ve had that sort of fall before.  I’m glad you weren’t badly hurt by it, though, and hope your sinuses are better soon.

    Also, sending good energy to your dad.  Antibiotic-resistant pneumonia sounds like a really nasty time. :(

  • The_L1985


    I just realized that I have given people all the information they need in order to find out who I am.  Please don’t look that up.

  • quietglow

    I’m afraid Frederick Douglass is too awesome to become a terrifying story. I dread ghost movies, but if you told me he was going to drop in for a spot of haunting, I’d stay up with a plate of cookies.

    It’s like the thought of being haunted by Clara Barton.

  • hidden_urchin

    Just think of the possible answering machine messages:
    “Hello, you’ve dialed Hell.  Satan is unable to come to the phone right now but if you leave your name, number, and a brief message a minion will get back to you as soon as possible. MWAHAHAHAHAHA!”

  • Donalbain

    How 13 became associated with good luck in my family I don’t know. 

    Almost certainly confirmation bias. Something good happens. You notice it is Friday the 13th, you all laugh. Then a few months later, another good thing happens and you notice that its Friday the 13th and you laugh again as you remember that you laughed about it before. Thus a “pattern” is established.

  • Kiba

    I would have waaaay too much fun with that . ^_^

  • After moving into a new town years ago, I dialed a bunch of interesting numbers in the hope that they were free, one of which was 666-related (I no longer remember the exact number). Someone answered “This is central switching, what can I do for you” and in context that was suddenly very creepy and understated.

  • Indiana Joe

    [block]You know, I would actually like to get a phone number that was 666-6666.[/block]

    You’d be surprised at how many taxi/limo companies have that as their number.

  • ReverendRef

    Where would you intercalate* the odd day, or days in a leap year?

    I would but it alternately between December/January and June/July.  This would give us that extra day AND it would be a mandatory vacation day for everyone.  And by alternating i, the winter fans and summer fans would be equally happy.

    I’m not sure what it means that I’ve thought about it this much . . .

  • Look up the Shire calendar.  It might fit the bill pretty closely, and you could always tweak it if it’s not quite right yet for Your Imperial Majesty’s demands.

  •  Yeah, that’s plausible.

  • stardreamer42

    I’m pretty sure that I have been in hotels that had 13th floors, but they were newer ones. And I’ve never seen a hotel floor numbering plan that skipped rooms ending in 13. I stay in a lot of hotels because my partner and I are science fiction convention dealers.

  • Matri

    Carl: Hey Jimmy, I heard that the play Macbeth has a curse and you’re not supposed to say “Macbeth” because if you say “Macbeth” bad things will happen because you said “Macbeth” and we’ve been saying “Macbeth” a lot, and congratulations on getting the role of Macbeth… *gasp* I SAID MACBETH!