What is Friday the 13th? Why people may be superstitious about the day
But nothing is quite as spooky as a Friday the 13th that falls in October, and this is one of those years. The 13th day of the month falls on a Friday one to three times a year. This is the second Friday the 13th this year (the most recent one was in January), and the next one won’t be until September 2024.
Fear for Friday the 13th may have been amplified by the slasher-movie series, but where did the superstition originate?
Dr. Phil Stevens, retired anthropology professor from the University at Buffalo and author of an upcoming book “Rethinking the Anthropology of Magic and Witchcraft: Inherently Human”, spoke with USA TODAY about the holiday and why it is an example of “magical thinking.”
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Superstitions, taboos and good luck numbers are forms of magical thinking
Stevens said that he likes to think of the superstition around Friday the 13th as an example of magical thinking. He says that magical thinking is when someone believes is there is a causal relationship between two things that are otherwise unrelated. For example, Friday and 13 together take on a different quality when they fall on the same day.
He also thinks of it as a taboo, as superstition has a negative connotation, even when someone uses it to describe their own belief.
“The word taboo actually is appropriate for this kind of a superstition. Because it’s the it’s the term that means avoiding establishing a magical connection. People can actively work magic to make things happen, recognizing the connections between things, but if the connections between things could cause an unfortunate result, then people avoid those connections.” Stevens said.
Some people look for positive connections between things. For example, China kicked off the Olympics in 2008 at 8:08 p.m. on the eight day of the eight month because the number is associated with good luck.
Another example is when someone has a good luck charm or assigns a higher value to an item after it has belonged to a celebrity, Stevens said.
Biblical origins of Friday and the number 13
Friday the 13th combines two taboos that come from the bible, accord to Stevens. Based on the story of the Last Supper of Jesus, 13 people were seated at the table and it happened on a Thursday. He was arrested that evening, and crucified the next day, on a Friday.
“So 13 is associated with that terrible event. And Friday, the 13th you get a double whammy. You get both of these elements coming together: the taboo against 13, and the crucifixion, which was on a Friday,” Stevens said.
Even though the taboo is tied to the Last Supper, Stevens said it didn’t become widespread until 1,000 years after Jesus’s story when more people became interested in the bible. Now he thinks the taboo is weakening as people embrace the number 13 more, and it is only a matter of time before it phases out.
Why superstitions are a universal human experience
Stevens said superstitions, taboos and lucky numbers are part of a human need to find order in a crazy world.
“I suggest that some form of superstitious behavior will be eternal,” Stevens said. “Some form of magical thinking will also be evident, because it gives us some measure of control. The world is vast, complex, impersonal, unpredictable and the sense that one has little bit of control over things is comforting.”
So whether avoiding black cats, cracks on the sidewalk or looking over your shoulder on Friday the 13th, Stevens says it all makes you perfectly human.