Michael Matza, Inquirer Staff Writer

POSTED: Tuesday, January 1, 2013, 8:00 AM

For sufferers of the nation's most popular superstition, the arrival of 2013 opens the door to an annum of angst.

Triskaidekaphobia - the fear of 13 - is a dread so common that some buildings don't label their 13th floors, some workers fall "sick" every Friday the 13th, and some passengers reschedule a flight if their only choice is a seat in the 13th row.

For Margaret Downey of Pocopson, Chester County, a self-styled "treatment nurse" with the campily named Friggatriskaidekaphobia Treatment Center, 2013 is an opportunity to "poke a little fun" while "easing anxiety through education."

"I went to Fresh Market in Concordville the other day, and my bill came to $13.13," Downey said Monday in an interview about 13 hours before the start of the New Year. "The cashier said, 'Oh, my goodness, $13.13! Do you want to buy something else?'

"I just handed her my business card and said, 'Come to one of our parties. You are way too superstitious.' "

In addition to referring serious sufferers to authentic doctors for mental-health follow-up, the organization that Downey founded in 1993 hosts spoofy anti-superstition parties designed to gently poke fun and help people with their fears.

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Their next party, at a hotel to be announced near Philadelphia International Airport, is scheduled to take place in September, on the first Friday the 13th of 2013.

At a typical $10-a-head party, Downey, dressed in a nurse's white uniform, guides triskaidekaphobes through an obstacle course that includes walking under a ladder, stepping on a crack, trashing zodiac signs, throwing darts at photographs, dancing indoors with an open umbrella, and breaking a mirror.

It's fun with a serious purpose, she says: "Astrology, belief in alien abductions, and faith in so-called fortune tellers are all evidence that superstition is still a powerful force in America. The billion-dollar-a-year economic impact of plane and train reservation cancellations, absenteeism, and reduced commerce on Friday the 13th shows us that the influence of superstition is far from harmless."
An estimated 17 million to 21 million people in the United States experience fear of the ill-fated integer, with symptoms ranging from mild anxiety to full-blown panic attacks, Donald Dossey, founder of the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, N.C., said in a 2004 interview with National Geographic.com.

Bad-luck associations with the number 13 have a foundation in the Bible, as Judas was considered the 13th guest at the Last Supper.

But in ancient Rome, witches were said to gather in groups of 12, with the 13th member believed to be the devil.

The number's role in more recent centuries in ambiguous.

"There seems to be little historical basis for fearing years ending in 13," James R. Hagerty wrote Sunday in the Wall Street Journal. As years go, 1913 wasn't particularly calamitous, though it did have its share of untoward events. The 16th Amendment created the U.S. federal income tax. A flood devastated Dayton, Ohio. War erupted in the Balkans.

"In 1813, Napoleon Bonaparte was on the rampage in Europe. The British burned Buffalo, N.Y. Two centuries before, in 1613, Shakespeare's Globe theater burned down."

Very superstitious people may begin feeling apprehensive the moment the ball drops in Times Square, Downey said.

"But this world has had calamities, misfortunes, and economic hard times forever," she said, "and it will never be any better or worse because of two digits on the end of a year."