On Friday the 13th, a 'nurse' with a cure for superstition
Her Friggatriskaidekaphobia Clinic aims to stomp out irrational fears.
Today's the day a surprising number of Americans are said to become so anxious that they delay travel, put off momentous decisions or become so paralyzed with fear they refuse to get out of bed -- simply because it's Friday the 13th.
For some folks, the anxiety may be doubly severe given that the year is 2013.
But just why Friday the 13th became enshrined in the popular imagination as evil or unlucky remains anybody's guess.
Some claim the number 13 began to hold it's superstitious power in ancient Norse or Roman mythology, others believe it has to do with Judas being the 13th Apostle at the Last Supper. But the fact is that until 1907 there's no recorded mention of a fear involving both 13 and a Friday, according to folklorists who study this kind of thing.
(That's not to say that the ominous combination of integer and day-of-the-week hasn't had grave consequences for some folks. Tim Russert, Tupac Shakur and Hubert Humphrey all shuffled off this mortal coil on a Friday the 13th. So just to be sure, be careful out there.)
For Margaret Downey, the vivacious founder of the national Freethought Society, Friday the 13th is an opportunity to throw a party.
In previous years she's taken her Anti-Superstition Bash to as far afield as Las Vegas and as close to home as the Ethical Society on Rittenhouse Square. Tonight, at the Embassy Suites at the Philadelphia Airport Hotel, several hundred people have bought tickets to join her for the (roughly biannual) bash, which this year also serves as an opening event for The 2013 Pennsylvania Atheist/Humanist/Skeptic Conference which runs through Sunday at the hotel.
Campily dressed as a nurse, Downey, 63, will be offering a "cure for friggatriskaidekaphobia," better known as the fear of Friday the 13th, at a makeshift treatment clinic. Party-goers can also expect a lot of dancing indoors with open umbrellas, breaking mirrors and walking under ladders.
We chatted with Downey earlier this week about the fete, freethought and frivolity.
Q: Are there other “nurses” out there treating Friggatriskaidekaphobia?
Margaret Downey: No. "I'm the only one in the world brave enough to do this character, I think.... kind of crazy, I know. You'd think there would be some on the West Coast, but...."
Q: Is one nurse enough? There seem to be more people suffering from this fear than just one nurse could possibly treat.
A: "I have deputized other fun-loving and courageous nurses and doctors. "You should have seen what we did in Las Vegas last year. We had a conference on Friday the 13th. We set up a room right off a ballroom and used my local friends as doctors and nurses and added a character that was very popular, Miss Fortune Teller.
Q: The misfortune teller? Ha! What did she do?
A: She had these cards I made. Every card had the worst possible fortune you could think of, such as, “You have halitosis and nobody will tell you.”
She really got into the role. She was so mean! It helped she was from Romania. She’d growl, “Take a card.”
This year we have another beautiful woman, absolutely gorgeous, and she’ll be handling the Miss Fortune Cards.
Q: Most people who debunk superstition and are critical of religion -- people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris -- are so deadly serious about it. They come off as professional party-poopers. How did you come to a lighter take on it all?
A: We take this very seriously, but we also consider this an educational opportunity to make people laugh and think.
Q: How do you know when you’ve successfully “cured” a patient?
A: The test is, can you walk under the ladder without trepidation.
Q: Do black cats play a role in the cure?
A: Assistants will be holding black stuffed cats, passing them over patients. Think “cat scans.”
By the way, we think it’s terrible that the black cat has been victimized and on Friday the 13 and we work to stop the prejudice against them. It’s time they stopped being stereotyped as unlucky.
Q: Are the symptoms of Frigga… , uh, you know, are the symptoms any more acute this year?
A: It’s caused trepidation to so many people, and more so this year because it’s 2013.
Q: So is there a serious side to all this?
A: I think we can actually look at numbers and figure out the fear of Friday the 13th causes a slowness in our economy. Many people don’t travel or get even out of bed. They don’t go to work and any slight incident could cause so much anxiety that they become less productive.
Q: But on the whole, aren’t the beliefs that fuel the fear of Friday the 13th on the way out?
A: The world does seem to be getting more rational. Statistics show more and more people abandoning the church, becoming “Nones.” That’s the fastest growing religion – nonbelievers. That’s one of the steps to freeing your mind of ancient superstitions. Throwing out the fallacies and applying more scientific evidence the world and looking at the literature of the Bible and other sacred texts less literally.
Q: The 13th and the campaign against supersition isn’t a one day affair for you.
A: I make house calls the rest of the year. You can hire me. I’ll visit someone in their office and have them break mirrors and walk under ladders, but do it like a singing telegram, and that’s a lot of fun.
Q: There are many religious practices that appear to have scientifically provable benefits. Ritual fasting, for example. Do those still fit in your world?
A: We don’t think it’s superstitious to meditate, that’s a healthy thing to do for some people. We wouldn’t advocate it as a superstitious behavior. I meditate every morning, but I don’t consider it a superstitious activity. Some people say you’re a Buddhist if you meditate, but it has nothing to do with religion. It helps balance you mentally. Some people, like athletes, believe they need to wear their lucky jockstrap. If they didn’t, they’d have anxiety for not going through that behavior. They got there by thinking by believing there’s a magical power associated with an object. We’re trying to educate people that magical thinking is dangerous. We want people to live in the real world.
Q: So not everything you do is with an air of frivolity.
A: There’s a time and a place for that. Some things I’ve done have required a serious approach. For instance, when I was a plaintiff against the Boy Scouts of America or as a plaintiff in trying to get the 10 Commandments removed from the Chester County Courthouse.
But for the promotion of reason, humor is going to be one of the things that causes people take a look at their lives. There’s nothing better that could happen to you than to break out in laughter. It reaches another level that can’t be duplicated. You can run data by people but when you hit them with laughter their world view changes.
Q: And that’s why Plato objected to comedy in his Republic! What do you have planned for this weekend at the annual Atheist/Humanist/Skeptic conference?
A: The theme is Unity and Community. What we’re trying to do is unify all these local groups into a cohesive structure of cooperation. We’re gathering these skeptics and humanists and atheists and freethinkers. Everyone hasa label they are most comfortable with. Our mission is to say “Here are other people who think like you. If we work together we can find more plaintiffs and activists. Together we can actually make a difference. Right now, we’re all divided into subgroups, and that means not much gets done.
Q: You mentioned earlier that you once had an encounter with Rick Santorum. How did that go?
A: I was part of a contingent who visited him about some legislation. I was involved with a group that represented minority religions, like Quakers and secular Jews. We went to his office. I was told to line up. And he went person to person with a photographer.
He introduced himself. As he shook my hand he asked, “What is your name?”
I said, “ I’m Margaret Downey and I represent the fastest growing minority in America.”
He said. “Really? What minority is that?”
I said, “Atheists.”
He dropped my hand and turned around, declared “no pictures” and stormed off into his office. I’m sure the first thing he did was wash his hands.
If you go:
The Friggatriskaidekaphobia Clinic and Anti-Superstition Party begins tonight at 6 p.m. at the Embassy Suites, Philadelphia Airport Hotel, 9000 Bartram Avenue, Philadelphia. For more information visit ftsociety.org or call (610) 357-9432.
The 2013 Pennsylvania Atheist/Humanist/Skeptic Conference runs today through Sunday at the Embassy Suites.