Day 421: The Number That Will DESTROY You!!!

originally published February 24, 2013

People believe in some strange things. Some of these beliefs evolve into organized religions, others turn into cults, and the ones that don’t catch enough fan buzz get pigeon-holed into superstition. Had Jesus broken a mirror or walked under a ladder right before his betrayal and crucifixion, then these precautions would have been nestled into Christian preachers’ collective ammo cache, instead of haunting the footsteps of the superstitious among us.

But what about the triskaidekaphobics? Is it logical to fear the number thirteen? Do they turn down hotel rooms that end in ‘13’? Do they count their French fries to make sure the suspicious-looking shrew at Wendy’s didn’t slip them a multiple of thirteen along with their Double-Baconator? Have most of them placed themselves into a medically-induced coma until December 31 so they could avoid dealing with 2013?

Where did all this madness come from? Is thirteen really a bad-luck number?

The answer to the second question is either “No” or “Are you seriously asking that?” or “Mmfffkkk-off, I’m busy.”, depending on how many pints of McNally’s Extra Strong Ale I’ve consumed. The answer to the former is a little more interesting.

Ancient Persians believed that each of the twelve Zodiac constellations would take a turn ruling the earth for a thousand years, after which everything would fall to shit: geese would battle cows in the street, babies would shoot laser-boomerangs out their eyeballs and toasters would spontaneously explode. To this day, Persians leave their house on the thirteenth day of the Persian calendar, just in case.

Some believed the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, the slab of clay containing the oldest list of laws known to humankind (dating from about 1772 BC), specifically omits a thirteenth law, suggesting that this irrational number fear dates back almost 4000 years. But that theory doesn’t hold up; there is no numbering of the laws on the original tablets – the only omission of the thirteenth law takes place in L.W. King’s translation of the tablets from 1910.

Okay, but Judas, the official Christian mascot of dickheadery, was the thirteenth guy to sit down at the Last Supper, right? Well… no. The Bible doesn’t describe the order in which the apostles settled into their seat. The Vikings might have a legit claim on being the true phobia-hipsters in adopting triskaidekaphobia before it was trendy to do so. The evil Loki, who plotted out the murder of Balder, the God Of Less Hair, was the 13th god in the Norse pantheon, and was apparently the 13th to show up at Balder’s funeral. Might be an act of superstition, or it might be an act of Loki having trouble finding a parking space.

Friday the 13th is always a big deal among the superstitious. I remember when I was a kid, my friends would watch for signs of the dark shadow that allegedly casts its inky wrath over this day, twice or thrice every year. If we’d get a pop quiz or if someone’s basketball would get tossed onto the roof, someone would invariably utter, “It is Friday the 13th, you know.” That never sat well with me. Maybe we had a pop quiz because the teacher wanted to see if we’d been listening in class (or, more likely, I simply assumed that the teacher hated us), and maybe that basketball ended up on the roof because Freddy Merton is a terrible basketball player, and someone foolishly passed him the ball.

In fact, I recall a string of Friday the 13ths in which I fell upon unusually good luck. I began to look forward to those days; maybe I was cashing in on everyone else’s bad mojo, picking up the inevitable elastic snap-back of the universe. Or maybe it’s just all crap.

I always get a kick out of how this plays into building design. Dilip Rangnekar (yes, his first name is ‘Dilip’) of Otis Elevators ran an internal review of their records, and found that as many as 85% of buildings for which they’d supplied the elevators had no 13th floor. I’m going out on a rickety limb here and assuming they’re not counting buildings with fewer than thirteen floors in this analysis. But 85% – that’s incredible. All these building owners felt they’d have a hard time recruiting tenants for a thirteenth floor.

I knew this was a thing, but I had no idea it was so commonplace. Most buildings simply jump from 12 to 14 – though why someone on the “14th floor” would think they have an immunity to misfortune because of a number on an elevator button, when in fact they are still on the goddamn thirteenth floor, I can’t imagine. Other buildings will actually seal off the 13th floor as a maintenance floor, designating it as “12-A” or “M” (the thirteenth letter) instead.

In China, they take superstitious elevator madness to a whole new level (pun not originally intended, but in retrospect, I don’t mind it). Their beef is with the number ‘4’, whose pronunciation in Mandarin is very similar to that of their word for ‘death’. Newer buildings in China omit the fourth floor, as well as the 14th, 24th, 34th, and so on. The photo above is from a building sympathetic to all adherents of paranoia, skipping 13 as well as 14. Presumably for a 40+ story building, the numbers would climb from 39 right to 50. This means to figure out how many stories you are from the pavement, you’d need to do math. I simply can’t abide by unnecessary math.

In Ireland, motorists were not issued ‘13’ stickers for their license plates this year. They printed ‘131’ stickers for those who renew their registration in the first half of the year and ‘132’ stickers for the second. Because otherwise, every Irish motorist with a ‘13’ sticker would collide with one another in the most massive pile-up in driving history. Or something.

I’m going to side with the New Yorkers like Civil War veteran Captain William Fowler, who started the Thirteen Club back in 1881. These guys wanted to debunk all superstitions: they’d hold their get-togethers on Friday the 13th, in Room 13 of a venue. Guests would walk under ladders to enter the room, then sit in groups of thirteen at tables stacked with piles of spilled salt. Apart from the fact that heaps of loose salt might attract ants, there is no record of any ominous karma befalling Thirteen Club members.

Seventeen is the number of doom in Italy. 39 will get Afghanis to cower in fear. In Tibet, thirteen is considered a lucky number. All this should serve as brilliant neon proof that time spent altering one’s life in avoidance of superstitious nonsense is nothing more than time wasted. These silly superstitions mean absolutely nothing.

Knock on wood…

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