Friday the 13th, Part I


The Daily Courier 1/12/2012

The second Friday of January, April and July fall on the 13th day of the month this year.

For some, those dates are scant more than coincidence. For others - particularly those afflicted with friggatriskaidekaphobia, the clinical term for fear of Friday the 13th - they herald disconcertion and, in some cases, paralyzing fear.

"Basically, what we're talking about is people who have phobias or fears, and there are a couple of different theories about that," said Al Garbagnati, a psychology professor at Yavapai College.

One hypothesis that explains fears and other behaviors is the biological model, Garbagnati said.

In short, some people may be born more fearful or prone to develop fear than others because of genetics.

"Many people who have children point out that there are real differences between them, even as babies," Garbagnati said. "Some are just way laid-back and easygoing - you could drop them on their head and they'd giggle - while others are highly reactive to everything."

So, loosely applied, people who are easily scared may have a predisposition to fear of things like Friday the 13th.

Another prevalent theory is the cognitive model, Garbagnati said. The simplified explanation is that thoughts and associations create experiences.

"When it comes to Friday the 13th, it's most likely anticipatory," Garbagnati said. "It's probably somebody who has seen the horror movies (of the same name), or who hear it's unlucky. When that person thinks about all the possible things that could happen, there's a physiological stress response, which is related to the fight-or-flight response."

That's your body kicking into overdrive so you can vanquish or escape whatever stimulus you perceive as a threat, Garbagnati said.

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There's help, though, as offered by Margaret Downey of Pocopson, Penn.'s satiric Friggatriskaidekaphobia Treatment Center.

"We host big parties every other year and luncheons on the off-years where I go around dressed as the Friggatriskaidekaphobia treatment nurse and have people open umbrellas indoors and do some funny things," said Downey, who holds no clinical degree. "We'll have people do things like walk under ladders and I read them their astrology - and I spell that with two s's - and ask them to rip up their zodiac sign."

The rest of the year, Downey runs a few nonprofit organizations, including the Freethought Society, a non-theist group promoting idea exchange. As a teenager, Downey sat through séances with relatives who believed in apparitions for years before she took matters into her own hands "and became their trickster spirit."

"But as I got older, I also learned the psychological damage superstitions can have on people, including Friday the 13th," she said. "We want to educate people about this because there are people - and I've talked to a few of them - who won't leave the house on those days."

Garbagnati agreed fears and phobias can be debilitating.

"Most of us wouldn't even notice a Friday the 13th unless we looked at a calendar, but for some people there's something special and negative about it," he said. "There are a number of ways to address that, like with all behavioral issues, including challenging the validity of the belief by exposing people to situations where they encounter that fear without something negative happening."

There are also relaxation techniques and biofeedback systems to learn to deal with physiological responses to fears and phobias, Garbagnati added.

This year could be especially trying for people with friggatriskaidekaphobia.

"The Friday the 13ths are spaced exactly 13 weeks apart," Downey said in an affectedly ominous voice. "And just yesterday (Wednesday) I got gas in my car and it was $13. How about that?"

She can't complain too much; Downey got a last-minute doctor's appointment Friday because of someone else's superstition-inspired cancellation.

"But it's ironic, I think, because this is why we educate people about this," she said. "Just because it's a number and just because there're certain myths surrounding it, it doesn't mean you can't conduct business, you can't go to work and you can't buy a car or get married, or any of the normal things you would have done a regular day."

The economy can be affected by superstition, and that's serious, she said before slipping back into satire mode.

"The other reason we do this is because of discrimination. We do not want people to be classified by their astrological signs. You should make decisions about other people based on your experiences, not rely on some hogwash," she said. "And besides, it's bigotry against black cats."