No friggatriskaidekaphobia here

By Aaron Blevins, 9/19/2013

Center for Inquiry hosts ‘Superstition Bash’ in Hollywood


Members and supporters of the Center for Inquiry-Los Angeles on Friday the 13th tested their (bad) luck by walking under ladders, hanging out with black cats and, of course, smashing mirrors.

Former “Beat the Geeks” host J. Keith van Straaten smashes a mirror with a hammer at the “Superstition Bash” at the Center for Inquiry-Los Angeles on Friday the 13th. (photo by Aaron Blevins)

While fun and certainly entertaining, the event served as another opportunity for the center to disprove superstitions and discuss the origins of such beliefs, some of which can have unfortunate consequences.

“It’s kind of light-hearted, but [it’s something] we really hope some people would give some thought to,” said Jim Underdown, executive director of the organization.

The Center for Inquiry had on display an exhibit, “13 Stations of Misfortune”, that discussed several superstitions, many of which still persist today. There were examples of things that purportedly bring good luck — pennies, four-leaf clovers and knocking on wood — and bad — spilling salt, stepping on a crack and putting a hat on a bed.

According to the exhibit, people actually fear Friday the 13th. It also has a name: friggatriskaidekaphobia.

At 13:13 military time (1:13 p.m.), the center held a special mirror smashing with former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Horatio Sanz and former “Beat the Geeks” host J. Keith van Straaten.

“It felt pretty cool,” said Sanz, an Echo Park resident who performs at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Hollywood. “It’s always fun to break things, but especially for this occasion. I feel like I did something a lot braver than I actually did.”

He said he was not worried about seven years of bad luck, but did say that he had a scheduled flight to Seattle on Sept. 14.

“If it crashes, this will make a great story,” Hanz joked.

Nate Brown, who teaches at Santa Monica College, also pounced on the opportunity to smash a mirror with a hammer.

“Well I’m not having any more kids, so that’s all right. I think that anything bad that’s going to happen is going to happen anyway,” he said, enjoying the experience. “I think that breaking the mirror actually made me feel good. It was [therapeutic]. If there were more, I would keep going.”

The event is just one way that the center pursues beliefs of superstition or the supernatural. It also has a running offer of $100,000 to any person who can prove that they possess supernatural powers.

The center’s Independent Investigations Group has tested several individuals over the years. Spencer Marks, who frequents the center, said a recent investigation involved a claim that an individual was a “dowser” who could find water buried in the ground.

He said the person claimed to have the ability to find a cup of water under four feet of dirt. The group hid a gallon of water under one of several boxes, and the individual failed to choose the correct hiding place, Marks said.

Underdown, who founded the group, said nobody has won the $100,000 thus far. In fact, no one has passed the first part of the test, the preliminary demonstration, he said.

“We’re not holding our breath either,” Underdown added.

He invited the public to come to the center and try to win the prize money. Underdown said the group does not believe in the supernatural, but that doesn’t mean that such powers don’t exist.

“We are, to be fair, giving them a chance to show us,” he added. “We’re scientific enough to give people an opportunity to show what they can do.”

Underdown said the group enjoys exploring the claims, and it has helped them further understand why people believe the things they do.

“By doing the tests and the investigations and looking into these things, we have a much greater, deeper knowledge about why beliefs happen,” he said. “Why do people think these things are true? Why do people believe anything is true? That’s part of our mission.”

The Center for Inquiry-Los Angeles is part of an international organization that is based out of Amherst, N.Y. Underdown said the center has operated in Los Angeles since 1995 and in Hollywood since 2001.

The organization, comprised of secular humanists, lobbies for the separation of church and state, serves as a think tank and community center, and publishes two magazines, Skeptical Inquirer Magazine and Free Inquiry Magazine, he said. It also has a café and book club, and hosts lectures on the first and third Sundays of the month.

“There are a lot of social activities as well as, sort of, our cultural activities,” Underdown said.

However, the center had not been able to celebrate a Friday the 13th for approximately 14 months. Underdown said many of the beliefs stem from the Middle Ages, or Roman and Greek Times.

“Every time I get in an elevator and I see no thirteenth floor, it just drives me crazy,” he said. “These are Middle Ages beliefs, and it astounds me that people still do some of these things. …There are superstitions with mirrors, images being associated with someone’s soul that are over thousands of years old.”

While superstitions can be fun to explore, they can also have drawbacks. Last Friday, the organization also hosted Kitt Crusaders, who offered black cats for adoption. Nelia Southwick, vice “purrresident” of the organization, said black cats are generally the most difficult cats to place in homes.

“It really is [silly]. Black cats have the best personalities,” she said, adding that the cats seem to strive to make up for the one strike already against them. Southwick said she’s owned several black cats, which have undoubtedly crossed her path, without incident.

“And I’m still here to talk about it.”

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One Response to “No friggatriskaidekaphobia here”

  1. michael says:

    The correct word that means someone who finds water or other things in hidden places is “dowser”. A “douser” would be someone who throws the water on you after a dowser has found it.

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