Long considered a harbinger of bad luck, Friday the 13th has inspired a late 19th-century secret society, an early 20th-century novel, a horror film franchise and not one but two unwieldy terms—paraskavedekatriaphobia and friggatriskaidekaphobia—that describe fear of this supposedly unlucky day.
The Fear of 13
Just like walking under a ladder, crossing paths with a black cat or breaking a mirror, many people hold fast to the belief that Friday the 13th brings bad luck. Though it’s uncertain exactly when this particular tradition began, negative superstitions have swirled around the number 13 for centuries.
While Western cultures have historically associated the number 12 with completeness (there are 12 days of Christmas, 12 months and zodiac signs, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 gods of Olympus and 12 tribes of Israel, just to name a few examples), its successor 13 has a long history as a sign of bad luck.
The ancient Code of Hammurabi, for example, reportedly omitted a 13th law from its list of legal rules. Though this was probably a clerical error, superstitious people sometimes point to this as proof of 13’s longstanding negative associations.
Why is Friday the 13th Unlucky?
According to biblical tradition, 13 guests attended the Last Supper, held on Maundy Thursday, including Jesus and his 12 apostles (one of whom, Judas, betrayed him). The next day, of course, was Good Friday, the day of Jesus’ crucifixion.
The seating arrangement at the Last Supper is believed to have given rise to a longstanding Christian superstition that having 13 guests at a table was a bad omen—specifically, that it was courting death.
Though Friday’s negative associations are weaker, some have suggested they also have roots in Christian tradition: Just as Jesus was crucified on a Friday, Friday was also said to be the day Eve gave Adam the fateful apple from the Tree of Knowledge, as well as the day Cain killed his brother, Abel.
Three Reasons People Are Superstitious About the Number 13
Historians believe superstition surrounding the number 13 began in the 17th century, though they can’t identify one singular event that sparked its bad reputation. It wasn’t until the 20th century, however, that the number 13’s infamy exploded — fueled, perhaps not surprisingly, by a work of fiction. In 1907, businessman and author Thomas Lawson published a novel entitled Friday, the Thirteenth about a rogue broker who chose that date to destroy the stock market.
Today, the number 13 is synonymous with misfortune.
Subsequently, the concept of “unlucky number 13” entered the zeitgeist, and by 1910, the term triskaidekaphobia, which means “fear of the number 13,” was coined by a pioneering psychologist, further perpetuating the superstition. The myth about the number’s unlucky attributes continued to build throughout the 20th century, and in 1980, its place in the collective conscious — along with its connection to Friday — was solidified by the slasher film Friday the 13th.
Today, the number 13 is synonymous with misfortune and the macabre. High-rise buildings are often constructed “without” a thirteenth floor, and hotels, hospitals, and airports avoid using the number on rooms or gates. Friday the 13th is considered the “unluckiest” day of the year, which ultimately leads to millions of lost revenue.
People tend not to shop, travel, or schedule important events on Friday the 13, and according to CNBC, businesses lose hundreds of millions of dollars because of it. And while no one really knows why the number 13 has such a bad reputation, over the years, several convincing theories have been posited as to why the figure is so haunted. Below, read the three main reasons why the number 13 is steeped in superstition.
No one wants to be the 13th guest.
The most common theory that explains why the number 13 is deemed unlucky is actually based on Biblical Christianity. During the Last Supper, the final meal Jesus shared with his Twelve Apostles before his crucifixion, Judas was believed to be the 13th guest. It’s no surprise, then, that the earliest incarnation of the number 13 superstition related to seating arrangements.According to Nathaniel Lachenmeyer (author of 13: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Superstition, it was believed that if 13 people sat at a table, one would die within a year. Though extreme, this fatalistic notion (referred to as “13 a table”) was so ubiquitous that New England-based myth-busters created a group — The Thirteen Club — specifically to debunk the superstition.
The Thirteen Club’s agenda was simple: Sit a group of 13 people for dinner to prove that no one would die after a year. Despite the fact that The Thirteen Club boasted some influential members (including several United States presidents), it still had a difficult time recruiting members: No one wanted to be the 13th guest.
The number 12 sets an impossible precedent.
According to many theorists, while 13 is not innately unlucky, it does have a shitty position in the number sequence. In both traditional mathematics and esoteric numerology, you can’t get better than the number 12. It is the only positive integer considered a “sublime number,” and in terms of its numerical and cultural symbolism, it is quite literally perfect. Simply put, 12 is a tough act to follow.
Throughout history, the notorious number was actually connected to female energy.
According to Broadly astrologer Annabel Gat, “Humans are kind of obsessed with symmetry. [There are] 12 zodiac signs, 12 apostles, a dozen roses, 12 days of Christmas — a 360 circle divides neatly into 12, and we just love order. Then 13 comes along and throws everything off balance.”
As the number immediately following magical 12, it makes sense that 13 feels strange, off-balanced, and flawed. Many systems of measurement conclude at 12, so the presence of 13 is both unexpected and unwelcome. It exposes imperfection and abstraction, so naturally, our ancient ancestors — who depended on natural order — feared this figure. Gat believes this is why “those who feel drawn to the number 13 are also those who aren’t afraid to think differently.
The last reason for the superstition is actually rooted in sexism.
The final (and definitely most controversial) theory on why the number 13 is considered unlucky is, well, because of the fucking patriarchy. Interestingly, throughout history, the notorious number was actually connected to female energy: There are 13 menses annually, along with 13 lunar cycles (across most cultures, the moon is associated with women). It follows that many believe that the number’s negative association reflects female oppression.
Los Angeles-based intuitive Tanaaz Chubb explains that ancient cultures celebrated the number 13 in connection to the Goddess archetype — the Divine Feminine — and physical regeneration. Chubb writes that “[i]t was only when society became more patriarchal that women were made to feel shamed when they were having their periods and to ignore their amazing potential to create and hold space for new life.”
The origins of this particular superstition are long-forgotten. This notion, however, does encourage us to reconsider our relationship to the number 13. It’s possible that it’s not cursed, just misunderstood.
Cosmic warriors, when it comes to occultism, nothing is ever black-and-white. While I encourage cultivating a personal spiritual vocabulary — that is, associating certain patterns or events with broader concepts — it’s very important to actively consider the origins of cultural phenomena. After all, your unique magickal abilities will always be strengthened through knowledge. So, the next time you encounter the number 13, don’t be afraid to think twice. Who knows, it may be lucky after all.
The Thirteen Club
In the late-19th century, a New Yorker named Captain William Fowler (1827-1897) sought to remove the enduring stigma surrounding the number 13—and particularly the unwritten rule about not having 13 guests at a dinner table—by founding an exclusive society called the Thirteen Club.
The group dined regularly on the 13th day of the month in room 13 of the Knickerbocker Cottage, a popular watering hole Fowler owned from 1863 to 1883. Before sitting down for a 13-course dinner, members would pass beneath a ladder and a banner reading “Morituri te Salutamus,” Latin for “Those of us who are about to die salute you.”
Four former U.S. presidents (Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison and Theodore Roosevelt) would join the Thirteen Club’s ranks at one time or another.
Friday the 13th in Pop Culture
An important milestone in the history of the Friday the 13th legend in particular (not just the number 13) occurred in 1907, with the publication of the novel Friday, the Thirteenth written by Thomas William Lawson.
The book told the story of a New York City stockbroker who plays on superstitions about the date to create chaos on Wall Street, and make a killing on the market.
The horror movie Friday the 13th, released in 1980, introduced the world to a hockey mask-wearing killer named Jason, and is perhaps the best-known example of the famous superstition in pop culture history. The movie spawned multiple sequels, as well as comic books, novellas, video games, related merchandise and countless terrifying Halloween costumes.
What Bad Things Happened on Friday 13th?
On Friday, October 13, 1307, officers of King Philip IV of France arrested hundreds of the Knights Templar, a powerful religious and military order formed in the 12th century for the defense of the Holy Land.
Imprisoned on charges of various illegal behaviors (but really because the king wanted access to their financial resources), many Templars were later executed. Some cite the link with the Templars as the origin of the Friday the 13th superstition, but like many legends involving the Templars and their history, the truth remains murky.
In more recent times, a number of traumatic events have occurred on Friday the 13th, including the German bombing of Buckingham Palace (September 1940); the murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York (March 1964); a cyclone that killed more than 300,000 people in Bangladesh (November 1970); the disappearance of a Chilean Air Force plane in the Andes (October 1972); the death of rapper Tupac Shakur (September 1996) and the crash of the Costa Concordia cruise ship off the coast of Italy, which killed 30 people (January 2012).
Why Friday the 13th Spelled Doom for the Knights Templar
Some attribute the origins to the Code of Hammurabi, one of the world’s oldest legal documents, which may or may not have superstitiously omitted a 13th rule from its list. Others claim that the ancient Sumerians, who believed the number 12 to be a “perfect” number, considered the one that followed it decidedly non-perfect.
One of the most popular theories, however, links Friday the 13th with the fall of a fearsome group of legendary warriors—the Knights Templar.
Founded around 1118 as a monastic military order devoted to the protection of pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land following the Christian capture of Jerusalem during the First Crusade, the Knights Templar quickly became one of the richest and most influential groups of the Middle Ages, thanks to lavish donations from the crowned heads of Europe, eager to curry favor with the fierce Knights. By the turn of the 14th century, the Templars had established a system of castles, churches and banks throughout Western Europe. And it was this astonishing wealth that would lead to their downfall.
For the Templars, that end began in the early morning hours of Friday, October 13, 1307.
A month earlier, secret documents had been sent by couriers throughout France. The papers included lurid details and whispers of black magic and scandalous sexual rituals. They were sent by King Philip IV of France, an avaricious monarch who in the preceding years had launched attacks on the Lombards (a powerful banking group) and France’s Jews (who he had expelled so he could confiscate their property for his depleted coffers).
In the days and weeks that followed that fateful Friday, more than 600 Templars were arrested, including Grand Master Jacques de Molay, and the Order’s treasurer. But while some of the highest-ranking members were caught up in Philip’s net, so too were hundreds of non-warriors; middle-aged men who managed the day-to-day banking and farming activities that kept the organization humming. The men were charged with a wide array of offenses including heresy, devil worship and spitting on the cross, fraud and financial corruption.
The Templars were kept in isolation and fed meager rations that often amounted to just bread and water. Nearly all were brutally tortured. One common practice used by medieval inquisitors was the “strappdo,” in which the hands of the accused are tied behind their backs, and then suspended in the air by a rope around their wrists, intended to dislocate the shoulders. As Dan Jones notes in his book, The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of the Knights Templar, one of the accused’s hands were tied so tightly that blood pooled in his fingertips, and he was kept in a pit no wider than a single footstep. Many of the men were likely stretched on the infamous rack, or had their feet dipped in oil and held over a fire to burn. Given the extreme conditions, it’s not surprising that within weeks, hundreds of Templars confessed to false charges, including Jacques de Molay.
Pope Clement V was horrified. Despite the fact that he’d been elected almost solely because of Philip’s influence, he feared crossing the extremely popular Templars. The Knight’s coerced “confessions,” however, forced his hands. Philip, who had anticipated Clement’s reaction, made sure the allegations against the Templars included detailed descriptions of their supposed heresy, counting on the gossipy, salacious accounts to carry much weight with the Church. Clement issued a papal bull ordering the Western kings to arrest Templars living in their lands. Few followed the papal request, but the fate of the French Templars had already been sealed. Their lands and money were confiscated and officially dispersed to another religious order, the Hospitallers (although greedy Philip did get his hands on some of the cash he’d coveted).
Within weeks of their confessions, many of Templars recanted, and Clement shut down the inquisition trials in early 1308. The Templars lingered in their cells for two years before Philip had more than 50 of the them burned at the stake in 1310. Two years later, Clement formally dissolved the Order (though he did so without saying they’d been guilty as charged). In the wake of that dissolution, some Templars again confessed to gain their freedom, while others died in captivity.
In the spring of 1314, Grand Master Molay and several other Templars were burned at the stake in Paris, bringing an end to their remarkable era, and launching an even longer-lasting theory about the evil possibilities of Friday the 13th.