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The History Behind the Dreaded Friday the 13th

September 4th, 2013 Seasonal

In American contemporary culture, Friday the 13th is synonymous with bad luck. Supposedly, it's a day when everything goes haywire and catastrophes are rampant. But where did this superstition come from and why does it still haunt us? Here's a brief history of how Friday the 13th came to be a supposed day of destruction.

The curse of 13

The number 13 is still thought of as unlucky, but the curse of this prime digit is nothing new. Some believe that 13's negative connotation dates back to 1700 BC and the ancient Babylonians. Their universal set of laws, known as Hammurabi's Code (which conceived the term "eye for an eye"), excluded a 13th law.

According to Time Magazine, others believe that the Bible is responsible for the number's bad rap - there were 13 people at the Last Supper and most of them died terrible deaths.

The History Channel points out that 13 is a bad number by default, merely because it comes after 12 - a number that's symbolic of completeness. There are 12 months in a year, 12 zodiac signs, the clock goes up to 12 and there were 12 tribes of Israel. The number 13, on the other hand, is one too many and therefore a disruptor of equanimity.

The fear of 13 has even carried into contemporary times. Most major hotels and multi-level buildings in major cities don't have a 13th floor in their directory.

The 13 curse debunked

Not everyone believed in this numeral superstition and some even tested their luck to prove its harmlessness. According to the History Channel, in 1880, a group of affluent New Yorkers formed the Thirteen Club. Their leader was William Fowler, a Civil War veteran who served in 13 battles, stepped down from the Army on August 13, 1863 and even signed the lease for the clubhouse - the 13th room in a Manhattan tavern - on the 13th day of the month.

It took Fowler nearly a year to find 13 recruits to join him, but on January 13, 1881, they convened for their first meeting. The source notes that the club's numbers grew exponentially, and by the time it ceased to exist nearly 60 years later, five U.S. presidents had been members.

The 13th curse brought to life

The belief that Friday the 13th is unlucky can be attributed to popular culture. Time reports that in 1907, a book by Boston stockbroker Thomas Lawson titled Friday the Thirteenth was released. It was about a sinister man who tried to plunder the stock market. Not only did it sell 28,000 copies during the first week, but it was later made into a silent movie.

Whether fact or fiction, the superstition took hold, and a 1925 issue of The New York Times reported that investors "would no more buy or sell a share of stock today than they would walk under a ladder or kick a black cat out of their path."

The fear lived on throughout the 20th century, and once again, pop culture strengthened the superstition with the release of the 1980s horror film, Friday the 13th, which made more than $40 million at the box office.

The curse lives on

Whether people make a big deal about Friday the 13th or not, there's no denying that it affects people's behavior. The International Business Times reports that it's the most common superstition held by Americans. According to Time, the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute estimates that more than $700 million is lost every Friday the 13th because people won't travel, do business or make major transactions.