Superstitions are deeply ingrained in society, so when the ball descended in Times Square at midnight on Jan. 1 this year, so did fear on the hearts of those who suffer from triskaidekaphobia -- a fear of the number 13.
"It is a very real fear and it is debilitating," said Margaret Downey, who runs an entertainment and party company dubbed the Friggatriskaidekaphobia Treatment Center out of Pocopson in southeastern Pennsylvania. "It is a big deal, and these people need help."
An actress by trade, Ms. Downey portrays the Friggatriskaidekaphobia Treatment Nurse, a character she created about 10 years ago in response to friggatriskaidekaphobia, a fear of Friday the 13th.
"The reason I created it is because I knew there would be an opportunity every year to poke fun at superstitions," she said. "What better way to do it than with costume and with shtick?"
While her shtick is to poke fun at superstitions, Ms. Downey said she also tries to teach critical thinking skills by educating people in an entertaining way.
Every year on Friday the 13th, she dons an old-fashioned nurse's hat and uniform and throws an anti-superstition party during which guests break mirrors, walk under ladders, dance indoors with open umbrellas and step on cracks. This year's event will start on Sept. 13 -- the first Friday the 13th of 2013 -- at the Embassy Suites near the Philadelphia airport and include educational sessions, performers and an appearance by Joe Nickell, an investigator of the paranormal.
The Friggatriskaidekaphobia Treatment Center also can be hired to host anti-superstition parties around the country, conduct school presentations or make surprise visits.
"What I'd like to see is the end of superstitions completely so that we can get on with living in our natural world and accepting consequences and making good choices for ourselves, not choices handed to us by astrologers and charlatans who want to tell us our future," Ms. Downey said. "What I'm trying to teach is a level of confidence in one's self. If we had more confidence in our decision-making abilities, we wouldn't be wasting money on astrologers and palm readers and fortunetellers."
Ms. Downey's strong conviction stems from her childhood, which she said was steeped in superstitions. She grew up in a Spanish household with relatives who believed that houses possessed ghostly apparitions that had to be contacted to learn whether they were friends or foes. Weekly seances and the use of a Ouija board were the norm, but Ms. Downey said she saw right through those activities even as a young child.
When she became a teenager, she said, she would trick her relatives during seances by hiding in the basement and tapping a broomstick on the floor or pulling a fuse when she heard somebody ask for a sign from a ghost.
"Everybody would be screaming upstairs, and I loved it," she said. "I loved fooling them and controlling the situation and overcoming my fear that they had instituted in me. ... I knew there were no such things as ghosts so I became the ghost, and it gave me such confidence."
Whether the fear of Friday the 13th is founded or unfounded, it has a measurable impact on our economy, she said, citing millions of dollars that are lost on Friday the 13th when people do not show up for work, refuse to make major purchases or change their entire day to escape the perceived threat.
Still not convinced of the impact of the superstitions surrounding the number 13?
Go to any high-rise, she advised, and see how silly it is that floor 13 is called floor 14, she said. "Like the person's not going to realize they're being fooled?"
Many theories exist as to the roots of the fear of this number.
The ancient Hebrews thought the number 13 was unlucky because the 13th letter of the Hebrew alphabet is the letter M, which is the first letter in the word "mavet," meaning death.
Another theory originates from the Bible story in which Judas, who betrayed Jesus, was the 13th guest at the Last Supper.
Yet another stems from the belief that 13 is unlucky because it follows 12, which in ancient Babylonia, China and Rome was considered to be a lucky number associated with completion and perfection.
For those with serious misgivings about the number 13, Ms. Downey advises them to seek a professional evaluation and treatment and to be honest about their fears.
When overcoming phobias about any superstition, she said, language is as important as critical thinking. For example, not saying "God willing," "knock on wood" or "God bless you" when someone sneezes, all of which have roots in superstitions.
"I really make an effort to be friendly and nice when I catch people saying superstitious things," she said. "It's good for a laugh, but I do make people think and that is the goal. Think about what you say, think about what you do. Is it rational? Does it help you in any way or does it harm you in any way?"
Drew Bonnell of Upper St. Clair said he has had enough bad luck on the 13th day of the month, whether it falls on a Friday, that he rearranges his work schedule to accommodate it. A systems administrator for GNC Corp. at its corporate headquarters, Downtown, Mr. Bonnell said he tries not to schedule major projects or updates on that date, based on his experiences.
"I try not to live in fear, but I've had some major stuff happen on the 13th," he said. "If there is any chance of something going wrong, it definitely does go wrong. Never again will I schedule something on the 13th."
Most memorable, he said, was an incident that occurred last year on a Friday the 13th that brought down a major computer server and affected more than 5,000 GNC stores.
Strangely enough, Mr. Bonnell's problems at work with the 13th day of the month cropped up only within the past year, which happened to be his 13th year with the company.
His bad luck with the number also carried over into his personal life, he said, with the death of his father on Sept. 13.
Despite his experiences, Mr. Bonnell said he does not fear the number 13 in general and is looking forward to 2013 with hope and expectation.
"It's definitely going to be a year of new beginnings and new things," he said.
For those who do not embrace Mr. Bonnell's positive outlook on the new year, a look back at headlines of past years containing the number 13 may help quell -- or incite -- fear.
In 1913, the National Woman's Party was formed and the first minimum wage law took effect. However, that also was the year that the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, which authorized the federal government to impose and collect income taxes, and a flood in Ohio killed 400.
The century before, 1813 was riddled with battles of the War of 1812; however, the first raw cotton-to-cloth mill in the U.S. was founded in Waltham, Mass.
The Tuscarora War was in full force in 1713, but the Queen Anne's War between French and English colonists ended that year.
In 1613, William Shakespeare's Globe Theater in London burned down and Galileo unknowingly viewed the undiscovered planet Neptune.
History proves that each year brings good and bad tidings that numbers can't control, Ms. Downey said.
As for those who are facing 2013 with trepidation, she advised:
"Use your critical thinking skills and rise above ancient mythologies, rituals and superstitions, and realize that you live in a natural world with uncontrollable consequences, which can be overcome by good choices and rational thinking."
For more information: www.friggatriskaidekaphobia.com.neigh_south
Shannon Nass, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.