Today is, of course, Friday the 13th. There will be jokes about Jason, and at least a few photoshops of him crashing 50 Shades of Grey. There will be people on Facebook blaming their bad luck on the day. It’s estimated millions of people are actively scared of today. But what about Friday the 13th is so scary, anyway?
It starts with Friday itself. There’s a long, long Western cultural tradition that Friday is not a good time to start anything, a superstition so commonplace it turns up in Chaucer and was a common belief among sailors. It’s not a universal superstition, but it’s fairly common, mostly due to the fact that Christ was crucified on a Friday.
The number thirteen didn’t have a particularly good reputation, either; we all know the story about how buildings have no thirteenth floor, although the superstition extends itself in some weird ways. There are, believe it or not, practical reasons for this; back in the day, we went by lunar calendars, and thirteen full moons in a year was a massive pain in the ass for the monks in charge of keeping the calendar. It didn’t help that there were thirteen people at the Last Supper, with the thirteenth being a traitor, something that curiously reflects Norse mythology about the number 13.
Still, Friday the 13th being particularly unlucky is a relatively recent superstition, with no written evidence before the 19th century. This being America, a financial thriller is what many believe did the trick of bringing Friday and 13 together in the popular imagination, with Thomas Lawson’s 1907 novel Friday The Thirteenth.
Lawson’s an interesting guy in his own right; he started out as a notorious manipulator of financial markets, most notable for managing to use the stock market to sell $75 million of hype. But he’s most relevant here because he wrote a novel about a ruthless stock speculator using the superstition to trigger an enormous financial panic. Lawson himself, as you may have guessed, was incredibly superstitious.
Really, that did the trick, until Jason came along and tied the date not just to bad luck, but teenagers getting their tickets gorily punched. It says something about folklore and mythology that superstitions can echo across centuries and even combine as we adapt them to our modern lives and fears. It’s a strange shift that we go from trickster gods to stock frauds to an unstoppable killer in a hockey mask, but it shows that we’ll keep ideas around long after rationally we should move along. Now if you’ll excuse me, I just heard a strange noise in the basement where the lights don’t work that I really should investigate.