ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Psychologists seem to have a fancy word for every conceivable fear. There's nyctophobia, fear of darkness, and genuphobia, the fear of knees, and mnemophobia, fear of memories, but the phobia de jour is triskaidekaphobia. Our essayist, Paul Hoffman, explains.
PAUL HOFFMAN: People who suffer from triskaidekaphobia, fear of the number 13, are finding 2009 particularly disagreeable. Today is the second Friday the 13th of the year, and there is still one more, in November. Three Friday the 13ths is the maximum possible that the dark forces of numerology can serve up in any one year.
Some one in 15 Americans associates the day with ill luck. Apparently enough people call in sick, postpone trips or delay major purchases that the economy loses almost a billion dollars. Henry Ford, for one, declined to do business on Friday the 13th.
Why is the number 13 so maligned that high-rise hoteliers have even skipped it when labeling floors? The number got some of its bad rep two millennia ago from the Last Supper.
Judas, who betrayed Christ, was the 13th to arrive at the meal. Even U.S. presidents have not been immune to the Last Supper's repercussions. Both Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt avoided dinner parties of 13 guests. And in France, professional 14th guests could be hired on the spur of the moment to round out otherwise numerically ill-fated meals.
But NASA has shown no caution. In April 1970, the space agency launched the 13th Apollo moon mission at none other than 1313 hours Central time, from Pad 39.
What's wrong with 39? Well, it's the third multiple of 13. The first names of the three astronauts, James, Fred and John, had a total of 13 letters. The dark forces do not like to be toyed with: On April 13, an oxygen tank exploded, and the mission aborted.
It's not just unlucky astronauts who have 13 letters in their names. So do serial killers. Jack the Ripper: 13 letters. Charles Manson: 13. Jeffrey Dahmer: 13. Theodore Bundy: 13.
And so do recent newsmakers of varying degrees of disrepute. Alex Rodriguez, 13 letters, who also wore the number on his uniform. And evilness personified, Bernard Madoff, 13 letters.
Friday itself also has an inauspicious rep. And so, for the superstitious, the conjoining of Friday and 13 is potent. True, Friday is the harbinger of the weekend, but it's also the day when Jesus was crucified. In England, the sixth day of the week was once reserved for public executions: Hangman's Day, it was called.
There was a time when Englishmen believed all Fridays were unlucky and avoided travel and commerce. Legend has it that the British Navy challenged the superstition in the 1880s by commissioning a ship called the H.M.S. Friday.
The crew members were chosen on a Friday, a certain James Friday was named captain, and the maiden departure was set for, of course, a Friday. At least the Apollo astronauts made it back. The H.M.S. Friday and its crew simply vanished, as did all mention of the ship in naval records.
So if you suffer from triskaidekaphobia, sit tight because there's just one more Friday the 13th in 2009.
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SIEGEL: Paul Hoffman's name has just 11 letters. He's the author of "The Man Who Loved Only Numbers." If you'd like to comment on his essay, you can go to the opinion section of our Web site, npr.org.
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