Why does Friday the 13th scare us so much?

Photo of a black cat named Mamba.

Although superstitions can be arbitrary—a fear of black cats, for example—”once they are in the culture, we tend to honor them.”


Acknowledgements:    National Geographic

This year’s only Friday the 13th is upon us, and it’s paired with a full moon to boot. The occasional calendar quirk has revived old fears of bad luck and calamities ranging from auto accidents to stock market crashes.

Experts say such fears are long ingrained in Western culture, and they’ve been amply reinforced by the slasher-flick franchise featuring everyone’s favorite hockey-masked murderer Jason Voorhees. (Get more Friday the 13th facts.)

But take heart. Some research suggests you may actually be a bit safer on this ill-omened day. And superstitions, when not taken to extremes, can even give some believers a psychological boost.

Friday the 13th’s mental benefits can include a sense of order, something that can be lacking in modern lives, said Rebecca Borah, a professor of English at the University of Cincinnati. Superstitions are attempts to understand and even control fate in an uncertain world. “When you have rules and you know how to play by them, it always seems a lot easier,” she said. “If you have Dracula, you can pretty much figure out how to avoid him, or go out and get the garlic and be able to ward off evil. That’s pretty comforting.”

Friday the 13th can offer structure in a world where random and uncontrollable worries range from school shootings to extreme weather. “It’s comforting in that we can sort of handle Friday the 13th,” Borah added. “We don’t do anything too scary today, or double check that there’s enough gas in the car or whatever it might be. Some people may even stay at home—although statistically most accidents happen in the home, so that may not be the best strategy.”

Fear Begets Fear

However, Stuart Vyse, a professor of psychology at Connecticut College in New London, pointed out that Friday the 13th certainly does have its dark side—even if we create it within our own minds.

“If nobody bothered to teach us about these negative taboo superstitions like Friday the 13th, we might in fact all be better off,” he said in 2013.

People who harbor a Friday the 13th superstition might have triskaidekaphobia, or fear of the number 13, and often pass on their belief to their children, he noted. Popular culture’s obsession with fear—think of those Friday the 13th horror films and even this story—helps keep it alive, added Vyse, the author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition.

Although superstitions can be arbitrary—a fear of ladders or black cats, for example—”once they are in the culture, we tend to honor them,” saidThomas Gilovich, a professor of psychology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

“You feel like if you are going to ignore it, you are tempting fate,” he explained in 2013.


One thought on “Why does Friday the 13th scare us so much?

  1. Pingback: Why does Friday the 13th scare so many of us? | Peters Place

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