In our modern age of relative enlightenment, many treat Friday the 13th the same way as they would International Talk Like a Pirate Day; by posting some amusing memes on social media and injecting it into their small-talk around the water cooler or coffee maker.
Some more passionate about the day may see it as an excuse for a good horror movie marathon, essentially extending the Halloween tradition of many spooky shut-ins to two, three, or even four days a year. I admittedly fall somewhere between these two categories, dependent upon the fickle winds of my own levels of motivation.
The history of the day is shrouded in the past like so many lurking monsters waiting to pounce from the shadows. There have been put forth several theories on the origins, but most fall apart under deeper scrutiny.
Many believe that the Christian tale of the last supper of Jesus and his twelve apostles is the origin of superstitions surrounding Friday the 13th. It is cited as such because according to the story thirteen people gathered on Thursday the 13th, the day before Jesus was crucified on a Friday.
Some may argue this is a weak connection to the specifics of Friday the 13th, but that it might be a good origin for superstitions about the number thirteen itself being unlucky. I thought the same myself until I found out that in Italy, the number thirteen is considered a lucky number (seventeen is unlucky there). Considering this country has long been at the heart of Christian traditions, this pokes a rather large hole in the notion that the concept of an unlucky thirteen is based on them.
Another possible origin of the superstition is the arrest and execution of hundreds of Knights Templar on Friday, October 13th, 1307, by King Phillip IV of France. Ostensibly arrested for charges ranging from financial corruption to heresy, it is commonly accepted that this was actually a power play by the king and the new French pope Clement V to remove the large military presence on French soil not beholden to the crown, and to seize the sizeable wealth they possessed.
The first historical record of Friday the 13th bearing significance actually didn’t occur until 1869. In Henry Sutherland Edward’s biography of Italian composer Gioachino Rossini, he notes that “it is remarkable that on Friday the 13th of November he passed away.”1
From here, we can better trace the historical significance of Friday the 13th. It seems that as of the late 19th century, regarding this arrangement of dates as bad luck has become part of the culture, even if the origins of the belief are still unclear. The number thirteen is considered unlucky by many in the western world, and some at this time considered Fridays to be unlucky (something hard to fathom to those working the modern five-day work week!); so this may have simply been a convergence of two independently held beliefs.
Further evidence of the spread of the superstition can be found in the formation of The Thirteen Club in Manhattan, New York, in 1882. This club was founded by Captain William Fowler, a civil war veteran and prominent builder in the city. He purchased a popular drinking establishment called The Knickerbocker Cottage, and there hosted The Thirteen Club. The club of thirteen men would meet on Friday the 13th for a thirteen-course meal lit by thirteen candles; the purpose of which may have been to test fate or to thumb their noses at superstition itself. The eventual alumni of the club would even include four United States Presidents: Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, and Theodore Roosevelt.
Still, whether the superstitions surrounding Friday the 13th were a common occurrence or limited to the social elite is unclear. It would not be long, however, before a novel would cement the idea of the unlucky day in the lexicon of western culture. Published in 1907, Friday, The Thirteenth by American author and stock trader Thomas W. Lawson tells the tale of a broker who uses the superstition to spread fear and create a panic on Wall Street.
Finally, this brings us to the reason why most of us are probably still talking about this today, and why many of us treat the day like a supplement to Halloween. In 1980, screenwriter Victor Miller’s Friday the 13th was brought to the screen in a movie that would spawn a franchise of twelve films, a television series, and numerous books, comic books, and games. There is even another movie being planned right now! This film brought us one of the most recognizable figures in modern horror cinema, and cemented the term “Friday the 13th” in our modern vernacular.
From religious associations through historical events and to Hollywood kitsch, Friday the 13th has had a long journey. While it may be frustrating not to be able to say decisively where the superstitions around the date originated, those of us who thirst for knowledge also should appreciate a good mystery. And, when it comes to something like Friday the 13th, maybe leaving its origins shrouded in the darkness of an uncertain past is the best way to preserve some of its romanticism.
- Henry Sutherland Edwards, The Life of Rossini, Blackett, 1869, p.340.
Still thirsty for something spooky? Check out Parting the Veil!
American socialite Richard Jericho is a world-renowned treasure hunter. British professor of archaeology Wilkins Chapman is his stoic compatriot. Together, the two have uncovered antiquities from South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. On their most recent trip to the jungles of Peru they discover something more than they expected. As the fabric of reality comes apart, the two must journey across the globe chasing clues. As one answer leads to more questions, they begin to piece together a puzzle older than primal memory itself.
And the more they part the veil, the more of what lies beyond the veil spills into our reality.