Friday, Nov. 13, 1970: the deadliest tropical cyclone in history, the Bhola cyclone, peters out after devastating Bangladesh, killing an estimated 300,000 people.
Friday, Nov. 13, 1985: more than 20,000 die as the Nevada del Ruiz volcano erupts in Colombia, burying the nearby towns of Chinchilla, and Amerno.
Friday, March 13, 1996: Thomas Hamilton opens fire at Dunblane Primary school near Stirling, Scotland, killing 16 children and one teacher before turning the gun on himself.
A quick look at those headlines may confirm for you relatively quickly why people fear Friday the 13th.
Of course what they don’t tell you is that with 365 days and billions of human beings to choose from you can pull out a similar handful of tragic headlines for pretty much any Monday the 9th, or Saturday the 25th, too.
The Titanic went down on a Sunday the 14th. Hitler invaded Poland on a Friday the 1st. The Bruins ended Vancouver’s Stanley Cup dreams on a Wednesday the 15th.
Any rational examination of history shows us that the personal assistants for Mr. Bad Luck and Ms. Fortune don’t schedule their appearances based on the calendar.
But you can bet your lucky rabbit’s foot that somewhere today you will encounter a reference to it being a day when you should tread carefully.
“Superstition is a belief that there is a relation between an action or event when there is none,” Vancouver Island University professor Robert Pepper-Smith said. “The psychological mechanism is we want control.”
Friday the 13th comes around with great regularity. Every year has at least one. 2018 has two (the next is July 13). Some years have three.
Why friggatriskaidekaphobia — yes there is a word for fear of Friday the 13th — has managed to embed its clutches on our collective consciousness is a matter of debate and conjecture.
Phillips Stevens, Jr., an associate professor of anthropology at the University at Buffalo, studies the origins of cults, superstitions and cultural identities. In a 2004 media release from the university, he said that Western culture’s fear of Friday the 13th likely started in the Middle Ages, based on Christian teachings.
“There were 13 people at the table (at the Last Supper) and the 13th was Jesus,” Stevens said. “The Last Supper was on a Thursday, and the next day was Friday, the day of crucifixion. When ’13’ and Friday come together, it is a double whammy for people who have these kind of magical beliefs.”
National Geographic echoed that finding in another 2004 article that also pointed to the Norse myth of the uninvited 13th dinner guest sending the world into darkness. That same article said 13 suffers from being after one of numerology’s favourite sons, the number 12 — 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 gods of Olympus, 12 labours of Hercules, 12 tribes of Israel, and 12 apostles of Jesus.
That factors into Western culture’s lack of thirteenth floors, room 13s, row 13 on airplanes, and dinner parties with 13 guests. Or at least some Western cultures. It’s Tuesday the 13th that is considered unlucky in Spain, and Friday the 17th in Italy. In Asia, it is the number four that makes people squeamish.
The 1907 Thomas Lawson novel Friday the Thirteenth is sometimes credited for cementing the date into popular culture, something that was reinforced by the long-running Friday the 13th horror movie franchise.
While there is some statistical evidence that people will change their behaviour on that day, experts agree on one thing: there is no correlation between Friday the 13th and bad luck.
The date has certainly has been kind to Mega Millions Lottery players in the state of Michigan. Kelsey Zachow of Port Huron won $66 million on a lottery drawn June 13, 2014 and Kendall Warren of Kalamazoo won $27 million on May 13, 2011.
So why do people continue to believe?
It’s a question for the philosophers like Pepper-Smith, who teaches critical reasoning. He said the cultural prevalence of Friday the 13th has people hard-wired to pay attention to bad luck on that day. When it happens, it overshadows everything else.
“Generally what happens is that event is so memorable all the other Friday that 13ths are forgotten.”
However, for all the lip service the day gets it doesn’t seem to get in the way of many activities one typically would think as potentially tied to some superstition.
In 2016, the Nanaimo-Ladysmith Retired Teachers Association hosted the grand opening for its archive of unique heritage educational material on Friday, May 13. They chose the date deliberately, as did the Sanctuary Gabriola group, which hosted a beer and burger fundraiser that night to help refugee families.
“It’s a date people are going to remember,” Carol Baird-Krul a member of the Nanaimo-Ladysmith Retired Teachers Association said at the time. “We’ll treat it as a lucky day.”
A quick call-around to a handful of Vancouver Island lottery kiosks revealed local players certainly weren’t changing their lottery-buying habits due to the draw date. Ticket sales seem steady and on par with typical Fridays. In fact, people may be less likely to skip a ticket feeling that would be the day their lucky number actually would come up.
BC Lottery Corporation spokeswoman Angela Law said past history indicates there have not been any negative impacts to sales trends for lottery draws on Friday the 13th.
We also talked to two marriage commissioners who were officiating Friday the 13th wedding ceremonies.
That’s the type of thinking that appeals to Pepper-Smith, even as he sees the charm in letting superstition lead the way from time to time, despite the evidence to the contrary.
“People are free to say I reject that, but then they are rejecting rational response,” he said. “We conduct our lives according to the quality of our thinking, but at the same time it’s human, so we’ve got to smile about it.”
(Originally published online on May 13, 2016)