Most Americans have known about the superstition surrounding unlucky Friday the 13th since grade school. Some people take this superstition very seriously, refusing to fly on airplanes or even leave their houses. Others joke about it, take flashlight tours of spooky houses, or watch horror movies. But have you ever wondered how Friday the 13th got such a bad reputation in the first place?
It turns out Friday the 13th draws its reputation from many sources throughout history, and our old friend Popular Culture keeps it there. The superstition stems from a marriage between the perception of the lack of luck involving the number 13 combined with a series of bad events that happened on Fridays. Here’s a quick rundown of events taken from history, myth, literature, and popular culture that may have contributed to keeping the superstition alive.
Let’s start with the ancient roots:
The first reference of unlucky 13 is believed to have occurred in an ancient Norse myth, where twelve gods are eating dinner and an unwelcome guest arrives. The 13th guest, named Loki, schemes to murder Baldur for trying to get him to leave. Killing the most beloved god of light, joy, purity, beauty, innocence, and reconciliation causes the entire earth to go dark in the very first “blackout.” A worldwide blackout is very unlucky indeed.
Our next set of references is found in the Bible—negative ones for both for Friday and for the number 13. There were twelve disciples with Jesus at the Last Supper and then Judas, the 13th guest, betrayed Jesus. Eve is believed to have tempted Adam on a Friday, and the Temple of Solomon was destroyed on a Friday. Of course, the crucifixion took place on, you guessed it, a Friday. It’s only fair to note that on the positive side, the human race was also created on a Friday.
Flashing forward a few centuries:
The Persecution of the Knights Templar
Many sources postulate that the destruction of the Knight Templar on Friday, October 13th, 1307 was the beginning of the superstition. The Knights Templar were religious crusaders during the Middle Ages whose job it was to protect Christian pilgrims as they journeyed to religious sites in Jerusalem. On this particular Friday the 13th, leader Jaques de Molay and 60 of his knights were arrested in Paris and charged with heresy. Why were religious knights charged with heresy? It seems the king of France owed them money and didn’t want to pay it back. This tie to Friday the 13th was further explored in Dan Brown’s popular work of fiction, The Da Vinci Code, published in 2003.
And into the 20th century (and beyond):
In seafaring cultures, Friday has long been considered an unlucky day to begin a voyage, with many sailors refusing to do so. There is actually an urban myth about a British Royal Navy ship named the HMS Friday that was built in the 1900s to dispel this superstition. But according to the myth, the ship sank anyway, reinforcing the unlucky Friday superstition. It makes a great story, but like many legends, it’s not true.
Financier Thomas W. Lawson's Friday the Thirteenth
In 1907, a Wall Street high flier named Thomas W. Lawson published a novel called Friday the Thirteenth. The book is about a financier who picks Friday the 13th to create a false stock market panic, so that he can manipulate it for material gain. The book was very popular in its day. In an ironic coincidence, Lawson’s namesake ship, the only schooner ever built with seven masts, was wrecked on Friday the 13th of that same year. This furthered the unlucky reputation of the day. Lawson’s book is now in the public domain, and thanks to Project Gutenberg, you can read it online.
Agatha Christie’s Thirteen at Dinner (aka: Lord Edgeware Dies)
Christie’s 1933 novel tells the story of a murderous event that happens when thirteen people sit down to dinner. One of the guests is nervous because when thirteen guests sit down to dinner, the first one who leaves the table is marked for death. This sounds a little bit like Loki without the Norse gods or the Last Supper. This book has been a best seller and it’s been further immortalized in movies and TV episodes.
Friday the 13th: the Film Mega-Franchise
There is no doubt that the Friday the 13th horror film franchise (twelve films, a TV show, and piles of tie-in merchandise and novels) has for the last thirty years helped Friday the 13th stay in the American public consciousness as unlucky day. Although one could seriously argue that the success of this franchise and the terror that is invoked by the sight of Jason’s hockey mask is anything but unlucky for the owners of this lucrative franchise.
So there you have it, a selective history of possible events behind the superstition of Friday the 13th, from ancient times to present day. What’s your favorite theory?
Deborah Lacy has two black cats and occasionally walks under ladders. She can be found in speakeasies, book clubs and at Mystery Playground.