Think the number 13 is something to be scared of? Try spelling the fear’s official name without breaking into a cold sweat: triskaidekaphobia.
Tuesday is New Year’s Day 2013, a day for revelers to nurse their hangovers and gyms to overflow with exercisers eager to rejoin the weight-loss bandwagon. But for people suffering from the tongue-twisting terror, it means just 364 days until 2014.
Edward Burger, a professor of mathematics at Williams College in Massachusetts, dismisses any unease that might be associated with the new year because it ends with 13, suggesting instead that the bad luck associated with the number has been imposed on it by society.
“Culturally, it’s an induction point when something does happen. Mathematically, there’s nothing to this numerology nonsense,” he said.
Perhaps 13 is considered so taboo in American culture, Mr. Burger suggested, because “when things happen, all of a sudden you tether it to historical interest or intrigue, and you go ‘Oh! it’s the 13th!’”
When and what inspired the phobia, even psychologists and superstition experts can only hazard a guess, though two myths tend to surface regularly.
Connecticut College professor and psychologist Stuart A. Vyse said the phobia might have developed out of stories from the New Testament or Norse mythology.
“The origin appears to be with the idea that 13 at a table is an unlucky number,” Mr. Vyse said, explaining that the Apostle Judas, who later betrayed Jesus Christ, has been described as the 13th person to sit down at the table during the Last Supper.
“There is a story about a gathering of 12 benevolent gods who were having a good time and Loki [a mischievous and trickster god] crashed the party, making 13,” Mr. Vyse said. “In the melee that followed, one of the benevolent gods got killed.”
Those stories, however, are “all speculation,” Mr. Vyse said.
Mr. Vyse, author of “Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition” said the superstition can be exacerbated when the 13th falls on a Friday. The fear of Friday the 13th, officially friggatriskaidekaphobia, likely sprang from European history, when Friday was considered taboo because it was a day when executioners hung prisoners, Mr. Vyse said.
“When 13 became in general an unlucky number, that was when [Friday the 13th] became a double whammy,” Mr. Vyse said. “But let me point out that the number 13 is a lucky day. Babies will be born [this] year, and that will be a happy event for parents. And some of them will be born on Friday the 13th, which is no less lucky a day for them.”
Only one Friday the 13th is scheduled for 2013, in September, compared to the three in 2012.
Some people embrace the idea of 13 as a lucky number, such as country-pop star Taylor Swift, born on Dec. 13, who draws the number on her hand before every performance. Professional football quarterback Dan Marino wore 13 on his Miami Dolphins jersey, as did basketball star Wilt Chamberlain when he played for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Mr. Burger pointed out that 13 is the first number that has the suffix of teen, and in some religions it is a positive demarcation.
“In Judaism, when you are 13, you become an adult,” he said.
That said, even Mr. Burger admitted that he takes notice when it’s Friday the 13th.
“I do know it, and I’ll go, ‘Oooh,’ but I don’t do anything differently,” he said. “Millions of people will fly on the 13th, and they’ll be fine; the 13th floor of a building is just fine.”
But modern-day architects and designers avoid labeling 13th floors, Mr. Burger said, because “psychologically, people are uncomfortable with that.”
In fact, the Gallup Organization and USA Today conducted a poll in 2007 in which pollsters asked Americans whether they would feel uncomfortable if they were assigned a hotel room on the 13th floor.
The percentage of respondents who said they’d be bothered: Thirteen.