Friday the 13th: Count the letters in superstitious

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When Kathy Cmar turns 50 on Friday -- Friday the 13th -- she will count her many blessings -- the best of which, she said, is her daughter, Jennifer, who celebrated her 29th birthday May 13.

Besides their mother-daughter bond, the women share a birth date of note: Both were born on a Friday the 13th.

"When I was growing up, kids teased me that I was unlucky," Mrs. Cmar, of Liberty, recalled. "But I found the day lucky, especially after my daughter was born on the 13th. Now 13 is my lucky number."

Such sentiments defy the legends surrounding, and the definitions of, two very long words associated with the noted day: tridecaphobia and paraskevidekatriaphobia.

Tridecaphobia is a fear of the number 13; paraskevidekatriaphobia is a fear of Friday the 13th.

And people who suffer from either -- whether they know it or not -- often won't step on a crack in the sidewalk and usually avoid having black cats cross their paths, two actions that some believe bring bad luck.

P.V. Nickell, chairman of the department of psychiatry in the West Penn Allegheny Health System, said people always have had irrational fears or phobias.

Dr. Nickell said that while the genesis of the Friday the 13th phobia is unknown, most believe it can be traced to Friday being regarded as a bad day in Western cultures and Christian theology -- Jesus Christ was crucified on a Friday. The number 13 in numerology is considered an unlucky number, he said. And, many note that 13 people were present at the Last Supper.

"Combine the two and you get a double whammy," he warned.

Dr. Nickell, however, has never treated anyone for fear of the number 13.

"We technically only diagnose someone with a phobia if it impacts their ability to function," he noted. "So from that perspective, we would not have people come in for treatment as there are not many Friday the 13ths."

Friday is the third and final Friday the 13th for this year. The others this year were in January and April. There can be only three Friday the 13ths in any year.

We wondered -- on the eve of the day -- if fear of Friday the 13th packs the punch it once did.

Mrs. Cmar, who said she has never steered clear of sidewalk cracks or ladders, hopes to turn the superstition on its ear.

"I always play the number 13 in the lottery," she said.

She has yet to hit it big. (Score one for superstition.) But she said she blames probability more than bad luck. (Score one for mathematics.)

A very good day

Frank "Fritz" Chickis, 65, of Cecil, tells a poignant, personal story to debunk superstitions about bad things happening on Friday the 13th.

"I tell people 'I love it,' " he said.

He recalled that it was on Friday, March 13, 1970, that he left Vietnam after a year of military deployment.

Coming back to the United States, he crossed the International Date Line, which resulted in his arriving on the same day he left southeast Asia: Friday, March 13, 1970.

"I had two wonderful back-to-back Friday the 13ths," he said.

Making his homecoming even more special: That was the day he got to hold his son, Jeff, for the first time.

The father-son reunion changed the entire family's perception of the day.

Mr. Chickis' wife, Judy Chickis, 65, said any superstitions she grew up with about Friday 13th, black cats and the like vanished that day.

"Friday the 13th is a great day for us," she said.

Mr. Chickis' father, the late Frank Chickis Sr., agreed.

"My dad always said Friday the 13th was his -- and my -- lucky day," he said.

Make decisions rationally

Joseph Cvitkovic, director of behavioral health care at Jefferson Regional Medical Center, said superstitions develop as humans look for explanations about life -- and for ways to control it.

People who are more fearful or anxiety-prone tend to take irrational beliefs more seriously, he said.

He said because Friday the 13th doesn't occur that often, it doesn't pose an extensive problem.

"Bridge and tunnel phobias are more of a problem in Pittsburgh," Mr. Cvitkovic said.

Although he has never diagnosed symptoms of paraskevidekatriaphobia, he said treatment for it would be similar to treatment for any illogical fear.

"I would work with the person to come up with rational decisions that influence and urge a healthy, balanced lifestyle," Mr. Cvitkovic said.

"That is the best way to influence a good, positive outcome for a good day, whether it is Friday the 13th or Monday the 13th."

Barb Powischill of Whitehall says Friday's date is a "state of mind" -- and a memory.

On Friday, June 13, 1980, she and her young family went camping in celebration of her daughter, Karen's, fifth birthday. Karen was born on Friday the 13th.

In the course of unpacking, Karen's brother accidentally slammed the door on her fingers. The children couldn't open the door and by the time her parents heard her cries and freed her, some time had elapsed.

"There was no damage, not even bruising -- even though she could have gotten frost bite from the ice packs we kept on her hand," Mrs. Powischill said with a laugh. "It could have been a disaster but it turned out to be her lucky day."

South Park resident Garry Matson, 64, said that bad luck intrinsic to Friday the 13th is hokum, but he concedes that shaking off superstitions planted in childhood can be tough.

As a boy, he frequently helped his father, Ralph Matson, a carpenter, with roof work. "He would yell at me, 'don't go under the ladder,' " Mr. Matson said.

"Black cats or any other superstitions don't bother me, but to this day, I won't walk under a ladder," he admitted.

Kelly Horvath, 29, of Highland Park, traces her knowledge of the day's lore to childhood tales of black cats and broken mirrors as well as a "good luck" charm her grandmother brought her from New Zealand when she was 5. The charm is a tiki figure from the Maori people there.

"I don't really believe in Friday the 13th stories of woe, but I like to keep the tradition and carry the little tiki around that day," she said.

She and friends sometimes watch some of those iconic "Friday the 13th" horror/slasher franchise movies that day, she said.

Still, she maintains some reservations about the date.

"I would never go white-water rafting that day," she said.

Stacy Innerst

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Margaret Smykla, freelance writer:


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