Originally appeared on The Guardian’s Northerner blog, 13 March 2012
If there’s an obituary in tomorrow’s Guardian headlined ‘Promising young Guardian Northerner writer dies aged 22’, then you know I’ve made a grave miscalculation. Some people will think I am currently flouting Satan himself by making fun of superstition in an article published on the 13th. Okay, so it’s not Friday, but still dear reader, I am taking my life in my hands.
Some on Durham county council must be amongst those who subscribe to superstitious beliefs too, because earlier this month they decided to prevent new build houses being numbered 13.
That’s right. Hidden in Appendix 2: Street Naming and Numbering Policy and Procedures paragraph 8.6 is the council edict: “All numbers should be used in the[ir] proper sequence. The number 13 will be excluded from the numbering scheme unless it is advantageous for the Street Naming and Numbering Officer to include it.”
Leaving aside the obvious question as to when it would be advantageous to number a house 13, this is quite a development for a country (and a region) which prides itself on its no-nonsense stiff upper lip. The people of the north east are regarded – by those who live here, at least – as some of the most level headed people around. Cowing to superstition just isn’t done.
Except actually, there might be a sound economic basis behind doing so. Viewing Land Registry Data shows that triskaidekaphobics may be more common than we think. Recent research by FindaProperty.com uncovers that living at number 13 could mean your house is worth £6,511 less than other, less fate tempting, abodes. If there are people out there who feel uneasy enough to cut down your asking price, then maybe banning the number outright isn’t a bad idea after all.
Unproven fears may seem like a strange basis for making a major financial decision, but Andrew Smith of the Digital Property Group believes that “for some people, superstitions can play a big role” in whether they choose to buy or not.
A number of councils around the country have instigated similar legally-binding bans on the number 13, while a staggeringly large group of developers unofficially skip over the number when building their new estates. 28% of streets already don’t have a number 13.
Professor Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire believes that humans are surprisingly superstitious. In a 2003 survey of 2,068 people he carried out, 77% of people said they were “at least a little superstitious and/or carried out some form of superstitious behaviour”. 42% were “very/somewhat superstitious.” A quarter of people admitted they get the heebie jeebies from the sinister number.
Prof Wiseman says now:
We were a superstitious nation back in 2003 when I did my research, and we still are. Irrational fear of a number is something innate in many people - and at an important liminal moment such as buying a house, we’re bound to let the irrational take over. Heading off that fear by eliminating the number 13 at source seems like a sensible move to me.
Of course, Britain isn’t the only country that doesn’t like certain numbers. We’ve all had the pub conversation about how the vagaries of the tonal Mandarin language has meant whole swathes of Asian hotels and tower blocks skip right from level 3 to 5 (the word for “four” sounds very like the word for “death”). Italians get weak-kneed at the sight of 17, and some Afghans can’t stand the number 39.
Is there a reason to fear numbers anymore, or is it a relic of a society which relied on religion and the occult? More pertinently for Guardian Northerner, are Durham county council being a bunch of Southern jessies? As always, we’re eager to know your thoughts.