Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Triskaidekaphobics believe 2013 will be the unluckiest year of the century

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Like the Otis Elevator Company and Ireland's motor industry, Winnipegger Teresa Sztaba is very familiar with the term "triskaidekaphobia."

It's a fancy word for a morbid fear of the number 13. Folks who dread Friday the 13th in particular suffer from "paraskevidaphobia" -- just like Sztaba's mother did at one time.

"My mother was superstitious, so I've grown up with the story that when she was in labour and realized I was going to be born on Friday the 13th, she started yelling and screaming, 'No, we can't do this, she can't be born now,'" recalls the clinical psychologist, now in her late 50s.

Reading a book about famous people who shared her birthday when she was a kid reassured Sztaba that she wasn't cursed -- she and her mom laugh about it now -- but the number 13 obviously hasn't shaken its centuries-old bad rap.

Try riding an elevator up to the 13th floor of Winnipeg's Fairmont Hotel. Place Louis Riel Suite Hotel's elevator lacks a 13 button, while over at the Radisson Hotel, you'll find floor P (OK, they used to have a swimming pool) between floors No. 12 and 14.

Otis Elevator estimates that up to 85 per cent of all high-rise buildings lack a 13th floor.

The fact that you're reading this means we managed to survive the Mayan apocalypse (12/21/12). But just when you thought it was safe to live your life free from a sense of impending doom, along comes the unluckiest year of the century.

(Paraskevidaphobics, mark Sept. 13 and Dec. 13 on your calendar as days to stay in bed.)

The number 2013 is only unlucky, of course, if you happen to believe in that sort of thing. Millions apparently do.

National Geographic once estimated that on each Friday the 13th the American economy loses more than $800 million because so many superstitious consumers refuse to travel, shop or carry out their normal business. Triskaidekaphobia afflicts an estimated 17 to 21 million people in the United States, according to Donald Dossey, founder of the Stress Management Centre and Phobia Institute in Asheville, N.C.

Many of us have no choice but to drive around with a 2013 sticker on our licence plates. However, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles gave drivers in that state the option of renewing their tags for two or three years so their decals would read 2014 or 2015.

Across the pond, Ireland helped its drivers avoid bad juju by changing the way it numbers licence plates in 2013. Normally, the first two digits on an Irish licence plate represent the last two digits of the year in which the vehicle was registered, but this year plate numbers will start with 131 if registration takes place within the first six months, and 132 for the remaining months.

While many of us are still rolling our eyes over the 2012 doomsday hype, there are those who have been bracing themselves for the worst since New Year's Day.

"It will be problematic for some," Dossey, who has been studying phobias for 18 years, says of 2013. "They might think something ominous will happen, that they might have a wreck, get ill or even have marital problems. It's just a nagging sense of impending doom."

Superstition around the number 13 is steeped in ancient history. The Romans were spooked by it, ostensibly because Judas, betrayer of Jesus, was the 13th guest at the Last Supper. (The Crucifixion was said to have taken place on a Friday, which doesn't help.) Another dinner-gone-bad involves the Vikings, who supposedly turned triskaidekaphobic after Loki, the 13th god in the Norse pantheon and the uninvited 13th guest at the Valhalla feast, plotted the murder of Baldr, god of joy and gladness.

Meanwhile, witches reportedly gathered in covens of 12. The 13th attendee was said to be the devil.

More recently, in April 1970, to be precise, NASA launched the 13th Apollo moon mission at 13:13 hours Central time. On April 13, an oxygen tank exploded and the mission aborted.

Then there are the dedicated (and bored?) triskaidekaphobes who figured out that serial killers Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, Theodore Bundy and Jack the Ripper have 13 letters in their name. (As does Wall Street fraudster Bernard Madoff.)

Some say the number 13 suffers from its position after 12, which numerologists consider a complete number, and with positive connotations: 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 gods of Olympus, 12 labours of Hercules, 12 tribes of Israel and 12 apostles of Jesus.

There are many, many competing "pseudohistorical" hypotheses concerning the origin of unlucky 13, none of which has met with widespread academic acceptance, says Gem Newman, founder of the Winnipeg Skeptics.

Once any superstition gets started, he says, a host of "cognitive biases" -- confirmation bias and the bandwagon fallacy chief among them, come into play to convincingly reinforce the beliefs.

"It's worth reminding people that not only is there no evidence that the number 13 is unlucky, there is no plausible mechanism by which certain numbers could be more unlucky than others," Newman says.

Did we mention that Winnipeg's 38-storey condominium complex at 55 Nassau does have a 13th floor, as do the Richardson Building and the Canadian Grain Commission?

Also, Kyle Wellwood, playmaker for the Winnipeg Jets, wears No. 13.

Superstitions get passed down in families and in cultures, Sztaba says, because as with beliefs in general, we tend to pay "selective attention" to the evidence that supports them.

"If I see a black cat walk across the road, I think 'uh-oh,' because I remember my mom said black cats were unlucky," she says. "But if nothing bad happens that day, I'll totally forget about that. But if something bad happens, I will absolutely use that as evidence that the superstition is correct."

The treatment for phobias, Sztaba says, involves replacing superstitious beliefs with ones that are more rational and also exposing oneself to the thing or situation over and over until it no longer triggers fear.

"So you would deliberately go to an elevator that stops at the 13th floor, to the point where you can't deny the confirming evidence that you're still alive and that nothing horrible happened."

carolin.vesely@freepress.mb.ca

-- with files from Kansas City Star

Friday the 13th: It’s not just a schlocky horror movie. Well, it is that, but depending on who you ask, it’s also a day to stay in bed with the covers pulled up over your head lest all kinds of misfortune and disaster befall you. There are two such days in 2013 -- in September and December – and they fall in what certain superstitious folks known as triskaidekaphobes consider the unluckiest year of the century. The poor humble number 13, feared and vilified for centuries. And for what? OK, so Apollo 13 is the only unsuccessful moon mission. And there were 13 people at the Last Supper, and a few other dinner parties that ended badly. Lots of serial killers have 13 letters in their name, it’s true. Oh yes, and good luck finding the 13th floor in most skyscrapers. Never mind that children officially become teenagers at age 13. Now that’s scary. Here are some other reasons the number 13 has gotten such a bad rap.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 5, 2013 D1

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