Where did Friday the 13th come from? (And where is it going?)

Friggatriskaidekaphobia is the fear of Friday the 13th, and combined with the full moon tonight anyone suffering this niche phobia will likely face compounded trauma.

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Fortunately, the internet is here to help. No matter how obscure an interest, belief or phobia, the digital recesses of the web are likely to provide solace, and the The Friggatriskaidekaphobia Treatment Centre is drolly demonstrative of this phenomenon.

Friday the 13th is widely considered an unlucky day in Western folklore. The idea of such superstition seems like a relic from ancient mythology; an irrational belief borne of ignorance in a time when gods were trusted to provide answers to the universe. Despite years of scientific and technological advancement and the evolution of human culture, superstition lives on in the digital age – it may even be resurgent, thanks to the internet.

With increased connectivity and digital communication allowing faster and ever more transactions – both economic and interpersonal – superstitions have the potential to accelerate and influence ever larger swathes of the population.

An early example of thirteen signalling bad luck is found in Norse legend, when mischievous Loki arrives as the thirteenth dinner guest at Valhalla, and ultimately causes the death of the god Baldur. This event is echoed in Christianity’s Last Supper, with Jesus and his twelve apostles making up the unlucky thirteen.

Yet widespread superstition around Friday the 13th being unlucky has only been commonplace since the early twentieth century. The 1907 publication of Thomas W Lawson’s novel Friday the Thirteenth has been isolated as a catalyst that combined the portentous nature of thirteen with the historically unlucky day of the week Friday in the popular imagination.

The novel tells the story of an unscrupulous stockbroker using superstition to cause panic on Wall Street on the inauspicious date. A fitting start to the Friday the 13th myth, considering that the condition of financial markets depend in large part on superstition and emotion, or as economist John Maynard Keynes called it, ‘animal spirits’.

Keynes coined ‘animal spirits’ to describe the instincts, appetites and feelings that guide human behaviour around economic transactions, with superstition playing a substantial role. Superstitions often arise due to a lack of control, and money markets are a good example despite economics being regarded as one of the more rational disciplines.

With increased connectivity and digital communication allowing faster and ever more transactions – both economic and interpersonal – superstitions have the potential to accelerate and influence ever larger swathes of the population.

Digital communication has caused superstition to grow rather than retreat in our scientific, technological age. The intangible nature of the web means that our everyday communications now exist in a space between the physical and the ethereal. This space is allowing more room for both fantasy and delusion.

But is the growing feeling of lack of control – of ceding power to technology – making us more paranoid with good reason? We used to scoff at conspiracy theorists who claimed that the government is watching everything we do, but the Snowden revelations proved them right.

Widespread surveillance might be the fantasy proved very real, but there is inherent danger in indulging all manner of paranoia. Sociologist Gerald Bronner warns that the internet is an “incubator of contemporary mythologies”, saying that ease of access allows people with fringe beliefs to congregate and disseminate misinformation at an accelerated rate.

This phenomenon is giving rise to a trend of asserting belief in facts rather than merely accepting them as read. “I believe in global warming” or “I believe in immunisation” are common utterances, as if the actuality of the earth heating up or modern medicine preventing the spread of disease were fabulous stories that one can choose to believe. This proves problematic when the flipside is considered – that one can also choose not to.

Modern mythmaking is on the ascent. Instability and lack of control has always driven superstition – ~feelings~ as it would be termed on social media – and the continuing anxiety around Friday the 13th is merely one example. As anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss observed, superstition has been so prevalent throughout disparate human cultures that “we should ask ourselves if we are not confronted with a permanent and universal form of thought”.

How else to explain ever-emerging mythology like The Slender Man or Smile Dog, which incorporate tech elements combined with superstitious beliefs and horrors. Facilitated by digital subcultures congregating on forums like 4chan, Reddit and Creepypasta, the internet is our new collective nightmare.

Yet the internet has the power to dispel superstitions as well as encourage them. Black cats were once regarded as unlucky, particularly if one happened to cross your path. Yet with the advent of the internet of cute animal photos, black cats cross our digital paths every day with not a hint of superstitious distress. Friggatriskaidekaphobia sufferers too now have hope that their superstitious anxiety can be cured with the help of the internet, freeing them to focus on more logical paranoia, like scopophobia – the fear of surveillance.

Anne Treasure works in communications, is a recent survivor of the book industry, and exists mainly on the internet.

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