Universitas Helsingiensis

The quarterly of the University of Helsinki

Bad luck day
Friday the 13th is known as the day of disasters and projects doomed to fail.

Arja-Leena Paavolainen

Back to spring issue 2003

Specially in the Anglo-American culture, Friday and the 13th form an unlucky combination. According to deeply rooted belief, all risks and even the most unlikely events reach their peak on this day,” says Pasi Klemettinen, researcher at the Finnish Literature Society.

If something bad is going to happen, it will happen on Friday the 13th . So you had better not do anything on that day, because it would go wrong anyway. “This is a new tradition in Finland. Before, special days related usually to the change of seasons or, for example, to a time when certain tasks were completed. Today, exact dates and a strict timetable set the pace. An urban cultural environment also shows in that the accidents are often related to machines, such as cars and other mechanical and technical devices, which already represent fears and threats to modern man.”

A special way of interpreting statistics has emerged parallel to the belief. Accidents do happen every day of the year which is why it is easy to prove that something is going to happen on a given day. From a psychological point of view, the belief is linked to a self-perpetuating way of thinking. People wary of the bad luck day are in a mentally sensitive mood and, thus, unable to concentrate properly on the task at hand. In such a mood, you may naturally crash your car.

A combination of two traditions

The belief draws on two older traditions, one related to Friday and the other related to numerology.

“In the Christian faith, Good Friday is a particularly important day. Jesus had died but not yet risen from the dead. People believed this to be a dangerous time because, during the critical transition phase, evil spirits could move about freely. Finnish folklore contains many beliefs related to Good Friday which resemble later beliefs associated with Friday the 13th ,” Klemettinen says.

According to folklore, it is best not to do anything on Good Friday that the evil spirits might want to influence. On the other hand, it was the best day for witchcraft, such as stealing the neighbour’s good milking fortune. Vagrants went from house to house and, if they received no hospitality, threatened to lay a curse on the house. Today, children dressed up as witches go from house to house at Easter asking for sweets, Easter eggs or money. A belief, which used to cause real anxiety, has turned into harmless folklore although its roots lie deep in the Finnish witch tradition.

Christians have also regarded the day as the gloomiest one of the year because of Christ dying on the cross. In Britain, Friday was regarded as the best day for hangings and carrying out death penalties.

“Friday was also when fasts began, which is also related to not doing something: we avoid doing something on purpose because the evil spirits are out and about. In the ecclesiastic theology, however, Good Friday is by no means a gloomy day. The focus is on the more positive aspect: Jesus died on the cross to take away the sins of mankind.”

Since Antiquity, various cultures have linked the number 13 to negative things. The Greeks had their theory on numeric harmony. Whereas 12 was the number of perfection, 13 broke the harmony of the even number. “Twelve is an international unit of measurement; it is also the unit of time in the year and the clock. On the other hand, in Babylon, the number thirteen was related to the ancient leap month and has subsequently been called the devil’s dozen. In the Christian faith, it was precisely the thirteenth man who at the Last Supper betrayed Jesus, and Chapter 13 of Revelations tells about demons,” Klemettinen lists.

There are countries where 13 is not used, for instance, when numbering airplane seats because some people do not want to sit on row 13. Sometimes people have challenged the magic of numbers. A classic among projects with bad omens is Apollo 13. The launch was at 1313 hours and, in every other respect too, the project proceeded under unlucky signs. The scientists who planned the flight ignored all superstitions thinking that as long as everything worked all right technically the flight would be fine. The result was, of course, a complete disaster. One might say they asked for it.

“Numerology also has a logic of its own: you pick only those numbers which are meaningful for the magic. Although there would be lots of other numbers apart from the magical ones, you disregard them. On a lunar flight, for example, there are a lots of variables and elements that can go wrong,” says Klemettinen.

In Finnish folklore, 13 has not been regarded as anything special. On the contrary, number 3 has been vested with magic. “In magical formulas, for instance, if you wanted to lay a curse on someone or cause someone bad luck, everything had to be repeated thrice. If you wanted to put some magic on the cowshed, you needed to circle it three times, and the devil was driven away by hitting the ground three times with peel. Nothing was ever repeated thirteen times, which makes sense because that would have been quite a task.

Fear becomes entertainment

In Klemettinen’s view, people get a break in their dreary everyday life by sending chills down their spines by consciously seeking for something scary. On Friday the 13th , you are allowed to be afraid and talk about scary things, which is good for you. By carnivalisation, evil and frightening things are turned into entertainment, something which people have been doing since the beginning of time.

Medieval carnivals made it appropriate on a certain ritual day to joke about deadly serious things, even demons. Today, we hear news about accidents and disasters somewhere in the world every day, not just on one certain day. On the other hand, it might be great if only one day was assigned as dangerous and on all the other days of the year we could walk free of fear. Fortunately, there is only one Friday the 13th in 2003.

“People have a psychological need to deal with things related to evil in a ritual or metaphorical way, and it feels much safer if you can do that linked to a certain day. It is difficult to measure the extent to which people really believe in bad luck on Friday the 13th and how much it is a question of entertainment. The media, for one, wants to create an image of fears related to Friday the 13th as entertainment; as if it were a funny day like April Fool’s. Furthermore, people like telling real and imagined stories about all that has happened. It is rarely done in a serious tone.”

Although people would not really be afraid of the bad luck day, it probably does, in someway, influence their thinking and behaviour. The

unlucky number makes you think twice about going on a trip, especially, if you have had doubts before.

Are there some good luck antidotes that you could use to counteract the evil?

“Carrying a talisman has traditionally been regarded a good method. In the olden days, for instance, before setting out to hunt, Finns used to take a sauna to guarantee good hunting luck. The same folklore advises you to eat well and jump over the campfire or clean your clothes with smoke,” Klemettinen tells.

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