Superstition can be a powerful force, whether you personally believe in it or not. Broken mirrors and opening an umbrella indoors don’t have any intrinsic horrifying properties (besides a mess of glass and a slightly more cramped room, respectively), but there are a lot of people who ascribe to a combination of feelings of unease and ancestral knowledge around them.
If you’re a strong believer that most of these theories are bunk, then it can sometimes be a tad annoying to see people tossing salt over their shoulder or taking the long way around when they see a black cat.
Making it worse, what can be a sign of good luck is considered bad luck in other places! A black cat crossing your path might be a sign of bad luck, but black cats bless marriages in the UK, bring money and fortune to the Japanese, and bring Norse farmers good harvests.
One of the most consistently held beliefs is that there are certain numbers – and the exact digit can sometimes change between cultures as well – that are progenitors of terrible misfortune.
Phobia of Numbers
We call the generalised fear of any number Arithmophobia or Numerophobia. This could include somebody getting a bit jittery every time they hear ‘six’ or a full blown panic attack at the mention of a dozen. Like any phobia, there’s no consistent way that it affects people.
In the west, we’ve almost institutionalised and made commonplace a societal feeling of Triskaidekaphobia, which is a specific unease and fear towards the number 13. Friday the 13th is an unlucky day (unless you’re Jason Voorhees), and the old adage of ‘when thirteen sit down to dine, the first to rise will be the first to die’ is so ingrained that it even appears in Harry Potter.
Skipping the number 13 is an uncommon but extant practice among very established industries, and hoteliers have an established tradition in keeping 13 well away from their premises. This doesn’t necessarily mean that every single person who operates a hotel is a superstitious person, but over time they’ve learned that superstitious people can have a major problem with checking into floor 13.
Because of this, it’s sometimes commonplace to replace floor 13 entirely. Some places use it as an administrative floor, for storage, staff use, or cleaning supplies, but some others simply call it ‘12b’ or go straight from 12 to 14.
The alternative, for some people, is worse than the presumed administrative nightmare of skipping a number in a list of numbers going upward. People who display triskaidekaphobia can have severe emotional, but also physical reactions; panicking, or even experiencing nausea, paranoia, sweating, and vomiting aren’t all too uncommon among afflicted persons.
When did it start?
When we think of people omitting numbers for superstitious reasons, we sometimes think of it as being a relatively old tradition that’s managed to stick around.
However, there’s one flaw in that reasoning. The thirteenth floor might have been taboo long beforehand, but there would have been impossibly few buildings big enough to house a thirteenth floor before the advent of modern construction and architecture.
Skyscrapers and elevators both came about at the close of the 1800s. The first Safety Elevator was created in 1857 by Elisha Otis, and the first skyscraper in 1884. However, even then, that building was only 10 floors high.
There are a significant amount of buildings around this time that fit the title of skyscraper (for the time) but only stood up to about 10 floors, which makes the exact moment where building the 13 floor mark a little tricky to find. We do know that The American Surety Building, with 26 floors, was the world’s tallest building in 1895 though.
Assuming the superstition took hold at the time buildings were built at 13 floors or higher, our fascination with floor 13 can only really be roughly 125 years old, making it a fairly recent phenomenon compared to the old Medieval superstitions we think of.
At the end of the day, the vast majority of people don’t care if they’re assigned to the 13th floor. According to a Gallup poll conducted on the 9th February, 2007, a whopping 87% of Americans wouldn’t give two figs either way if they were made to stay on the 13th floor of a hotel.
Of course, this means the percentage of people who, under no circumstance, would ever go to the 13th floor…is 13%. Spooky.