University of Alberta

Edmonton, Canada

June 13, 1997

Black cats, broken mirrors and Friday the 13th

By Deborah Johnston

A black cat darts across your path. Just a black cat in a hurry to get somewhere. No big deal. Doesn't mean anything.

A ladder blocks the sidewalk. It's a pretty tall ladder, you could walk underneath - but it's just as easy to walk around. Besides, a bucket of paint or something could fall on your head. That's all. Be honest. If you were booking a flight - and you had your choice of departure dates - would you choose to fly on Friday the 13th?

"Not on your life," insists Michelle Blonar, assistant manager of the U of A Bookstore. "There's just something about that day. I don't know how to explain it: a nagging sense in the back of mind that something bad would happen."

"A lot of clients don't want to fly on that day," says Colleen Ruhl of Travel Cuts, the student travel agency on campus. "It's one of the easiest days to book a flight. There's always space available. Fortunately, we don't have many Friday the 13ths in a year."

True, this year has only one Friday the 13th, but for the triskadekophobic, that's one too many. The disastrous date is supposedly the unluckiest day of the year. The origin for the superstition is unclear. Some say it comes from the last supper, in which the 13th apostle betrayed Jesus Christ. In fact, Friday the 13th has a nasty biblical history: it's supposedly the day Eve tempted Adam with the apple; the day Christ was crucified; the day the ark set sail; the day the confusion of tongues struck the Tower of Babel. No wonder the date has fearful connotations.

"I'm not afraid of the number 13," says prospect researcher Tracey Schell - as she knocks wood - "but my grandmother was. She would not sit down to a dinner table if there were thirteen people seated. And she once cancelled surgery scheduled for Friday the 13th."

It's not just the admittedly-superstitious who feel a little nervous on Friday the 13th. According to educational psychologist Dr. Henry Janzen, everybody is a little superstitious. "People don't attribute all that happens to a consequence of their own action. Most of us believe in uncertainties of nature."

And if there's a possibility of tipping the psychic odds in one's favor - why not? Superstition and sports seem to go hand in hand, and pre-game rituals are common. Dan Carle, sports information coordinator, says "hockey players are generally superstitious. Stick curves, stick taping, how the jersey is tucked in, in what order and how equipment is fastened to the body - the quirks are rampant throughout the sport."

If those rituals and superstitions appear to work, Janzen says they'll be reinforced. How superstitious you are, he claims, depends on where your locus of control is strongest. "In psychology we have studied the impact of internal versus external locus of control and how it affects people's behaviors." Janzen explains that people who have an internal locus of control are masters of their own destiny, less likely to believe that external factors affect their lives. (They're the people who board a plane on Friday the 13th without a second thought).

There is hope for those of us with an external locus of control, Janzen notes. "If we want to change it, we have to dig deep into people's belief systems and provide them with an alternate explanation. We now have scientific explanations for many once mysterious phenomenon." He says that doesn't eliminate the tendency for superstition, however. "Daily life has enough unpredictability that we still, especially in times of misfortune, turn to superstitions to account for the unaccountable."

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